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He would have liked to have played

November 17, 2011

In a sports report in today’s Independent, I read that John Terry ‘would have liked to have played’ in England’s match against Spain. Maybe at first glance that construction looks unexceptionable. But look again. The phrase ‘would have liked’ is the past of ‘would like’ – it translates as ‘wanted’ or ‘wished’. So the journalist is saying that he wanted ‘to have played’. No. He wanted to play. Simple as that. So it should be ‘John Terry would have liked to play’.

At least, I assume the journalist is saying that he wanted to play (at the time). But there is another possibility. Maybe the journalist meant that he wasn’t that bothered about playing at the time, but now, looking back, he wishes he had. That means we’d have to move the  ‘have’, resulting in: ‘He would like to have played.’ (He wishes now to be in the position of having played.)

Either of these ways of putting it is meaningful, and the meanings are different. One is about an unsatisfied desire in the past, the other an unsatisfiable longing in the present. But combining them doesn’t give us a new, subtle meaning. It’s just piling in extra words to no purpose. I always feel – perhaps unjustly – that when writers make this very common error, they are priding themselves on their deft handling of the complexities of the English tense system. Certainly many very successful and well-regarded writers use it. In Louis de Bernieres’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin we read the sentence: ‘He would have liked to have brewed himself some coffee.’ What? He wanted to have already brewed it? Or did he just want to brew it? Barbara Pym was crazy about this construction. Even Iris Murdoch used it. I don’t like it, but I  suppose there’s no stopping it. It sort of sounds vaguely right and it takes too long to explain why it’s wrong.

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