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would have liked to have done (again)

September 23, 2015

I’ve blogged about this before, but not for a while, and a very neat example popped up in today’s Times in a piece by Matthew Syed, so I’m going back to it. Many writers are drawn to the form would have liked to have done, which might sound OK but is an unnecessary and indeed possibly ambiguous bit of over-grammatising. Here’s the example: Matthew Syed first quotes the golfer Suzanne Pettersen saying (of another player) “I would like to have seen her take the putt”. Syed then adds “I would have liked to have seen her take that putt too”.

Let’s back up and analyse the first quote for a moment. It’s not grammatically wrong but I think it suggests a tense that Pettersen may not have intended. Consider: “I would like” means “I want” or “I wish”. It’s present tense. If you say “I would like a piece of cake” you want one now. So Pettersen here is saying “I want to have seen her take that putt” – ie she wishes now that she’d seen it in the past. Maybe that’s what she meant; but I think it more likely that she wanted to see it at the time. In which case, she should have said “I would have liked to see her take that putt” (= I wanted to see her take that putt).

Syed’s follow-up comment then has too many haves. If we translate, it comes out as: “I wanted to have seen her take that putt”.What? He wanted, in the past, to have already seen it? Unlikely, I’d say. We can either talk about something we wanted to see in the past (“I would have liked to see..”); or we can talk about something that we wish now that we had seen (“I would like to have seen”). But jamming the two together is just a mash-up.

I don’t wish to pick on Syed, who I think is an excellent writer. This mistake is really common – so common that it sounds fairly natural. In fact it almost sounds as if the writer is on top of some pretty complicated grammar. Lots of very prestigious writers use it (Iris Murdoch, for instance). Nevertheless, it is a mistake, and writing is crisper and clearer without it.

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