Tuesday, 4 March 2014

On 'I would have liked to have studied'

A correspondent writes to ask if I could explain the difference in the meaning between the following sentences: (1) I would like to have studied philosophy. (2) I would have liked to study philosophy. (3) I would have liked to have studied philosophy.

The underlying issue is one of focus. Where is the perfective meaning inherent in the auxiliary verb have being focused? In (1) the liking is now and the studying is some time in the past. In (2) the liking is some time in the past (and thus the study). In (3) both the liking and the study are in the past.

Because, by implication, the study is in the past in (2), usage guides have taken against (3), on the grounds that it's unnecessary. Fowler, for example, was against it. In his article on the 'perfective infinitive' (in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage), we see him arguing that because 'the implication of non-fulfilment [is] inherent in the governing verb itself', examples like (3) are to be avoided. He adds:

'Sometimes a writer, dimly aware that "would have liked to have done" is usually wrong, is yet so fascinated by the perfect infinitive that he clings to it at all costs, & alters instead the part of his sentence that was right.'

He gives as an example: 'He would like to have insisted' and corrects this to 'He would have liked to insist'.

Note the 'usually'. A lot depends on the context. If this is unequivocally past time, then it makes sense for the pastness to be focused on the governing verb, otherwise there's an awkward or impossible sequence of tenses.

John used to work as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would have liked to be paid more, but...


John used to work as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would like to be paid more, but...


John used to work as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would like to have been paid more, but...

However, if the context begins in the present time, and later switches into the past, then we might indeed hear:

John is working as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would like to have been paid more, but it was all he could get at the time...

We can feel the speaker's focus shifting from one time-frame to another, and dragging the 'have' along with it. I've talked about this sort of thing before on this blog (eg with sentences like 'I've seen him three weeks ago').

Such sentences are thus more likely to be encountered in speech than in writing. They show some of the characteristics of a blend. In writing, Fowler's recommendation is usually followed by other style guides. But why is the 'double have' construction 'wrong'? I see a place for (3), if the writer wants the perfective aspect of both the liking and the studying to be emphasised. It's a bit like using a repeated negation. The two uses of nor are omissible in the following example, but it's easy to think of contexts where the emphasis would be desirable.

John doesn't like broccoli, nor cauliflower, nor beetroot.

It's less obvious in the case of would have, but the principle is the same.


Emilio Márquez said...

Here are the meanings of the three equivalent Spanish structures:

(1) “Me gustaría haber estudiado filosofía” [me ɣustaˈɾia aˈβeɾ estuˈðjaðo filosoˈfia] means I wish (now) I had studied philosophy in the past.

(2) “Me habría gustado estudiar filosofía” [me aˈβɾia ɣusˈtaðo estuˈðjaɾ filosoˈfia] means I wanted to study philosophy, but…

(3) “Me habría gustado haber estudiado filosofía” [me aˈβɾia ɣusˈtaðo aˈβeɾ estuˈðjaðo filosoˈfia] means I wished (in the past) I had studied philosophy some time previously.

@BobK99 said...

Thanks Emilio. Having been brought up on Fowler (and with a sternly prescriptivist ex-schoolmaster grandfather) I have always avoided construction 3. But the three Spanish analogues sound perfectly normal to me. I'm coming round to the acceptance of type 3!


David Crosbie said...

I use the (3) construction all the time in speech — I would avoid it in writing — but not usually in the sense of Emilio's Spanish translation. I'm afraid I use it in the way that Fowler etc condemn. I just wouldn't be comfortable with (2) I would have liked to study philosophy.

Part of the trouble is the way I feel about the contrast
I like to study~I would like to study.
As well as the obvious difference in time reference, I take the former to mean 'all the time' while the latter means 'on a particular occasion'.

So, for me, I would have like to study suggests 'I would have enjoyed studying'.

As for I would like to have studied, this is where time reference comes back as an issue. Just as I would like to study envisages FUTURE study, so (for me) I would like to have studied suggests FUTURE retrospection, i.e. 'I would like to be in the position of having studied philosophy'.

So, for me, I would have liked to have studied in the dense 'unfortunately, I didn't study' has two advantages:

• the negative advantage of not suggesting PAST habitual enjoyment or FUTURE retrospective satisfaction

• the positive advantage of conveying unreal PAST in the main clause and then again with desirable redundancy in the infinitive clause

OK, the Spanish translation conveys cumulative PAST 'I would have been happy then if I had studied before then', but I don't believe that English does that.

It feels to me like a typical use of have to signal PAST time reference rather than aspect. It's no more PERFECT than If only I had studied, which means simply 'I regret that i didn't study'.

A blend is one way of looking at it. Another is a discontinuity:
I would have liked it
followed by the clarification
to have studied philosophy.

Tim Chadwick said...

Surely this is a question of grammar, rather than linguistics? Really Mr Crystal, as the author of 'The New Grammarians Funeral', I expected better of you! And, by the way, your book helped me to decide what to study at university - French and Linguistics at York (UK. I'm grateful.

DC said...

I didn't write 'The New Grammarian's Funeral'. And the post is all about grammar.