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‘Would have liked to have done’ revisited

August 14, 2020

I’ve just finished reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Bookshop. It’s very good indeed and also temptingly short, so if you haven’t read it do put it on your library-list. But on page 53 Fitzgerald makes a mis-step:

She would have liked to have been instrumental in passing some law which would entail that he would never be unhappy again.’

That is a sweet thought and it increase the reader’s sympathy for the thinker, Florence Green. But it is clumsily expresssed. Fitzgerald is normally a laconic, lapidary writer who leaves much unsaid. But here she has used too many words. ‘She would have liked to have been…’ Why the second have?

Maybe at first blush the construction looks right. But let’s parse it. She would have liked is the past form of she would like – which means she wants or wishes. In the past, therefore, it translates as ‘She wanted to have been instrumental in passing some law…’ What? She wanted to have already been instrumental in passing it? I don’t think so; the sense suggests that it was something she wanted in that moment. She wanted to be instrumental in passing some law. Just so: She would have liked to be instrumental in passing some law.

That’s not only crisper, but the use of tense is more accurate. There are two quite separate constructions with separate meanings: x would have liked to do y (ie x wanted, in the past, to do y); and x would like to have done y (ie x wants, now, to have completed y, to have it as an achievement, experience or memory). Mashing the two together is no aid to clarity.

Penepole Fitzgerald is not alone. Many excellent writers do it. Iris Murdoch was a serial user of this construction. But (as I’ve noted before on this blog) while it may give the impression of mastery over the complexities of English grammar, that impression is an illusion.

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2 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    This post set me thinking about other hard to parse sentences, leaving aside the well known Buffalo example which depends on the American meaning if the verb “to buffalo”, my favourite is: One One was one racehorse One Two was one too One One won one race One Two won one too.

  2. Ah – didn’t know that one, Simon. Thanks. Now I can’t get it out of my head!

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