Brandon Robshaw: English Usage #10

"Would have liked to have done..."

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 expressed. 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 (i.e. x wanted to do y); and x would like to have done y (i.e. 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 while it may give the impression of mastery over the complexities of English grammar, that impression is an illusion.

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.