To Be, or Not to Have Been: perfect infinitives

I recently got stumped by an old question I had considered in a previous post on perfect infinitives. What do I really believe about perfect infinitives? Am I certain when and when not to use them? Apparently others are stumped, too, because I see inconsistency even among journalists and novelists. Using the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I see a few instances of perfect modals (would have liked) combined with perfect infinitives (to have seen).  This double use of perfect forms seems a bit redundant to me, but is there any source to confirm it’s incorrect?

Here’s my take on the use of perfect modals vs. perfect infinitives:

  • Perfect infinitives can express a past time: She claims to have met many famous people.
  • Perfect infinitives can express an earlier past point in time: He seemed to have lost his way, so I approached him and offered help.
  • Perfect modals can express a regret or a wish that was never realized: While growing up, I would have loved to have a sister.  (Also possible: I would love to have had a sister.  Redundant: I would have loved to have had a sister.)

If you agree with the logic above, then you might like to offer your advanced students the conversation activity on my Perfect infinitives_handout.


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Cece Dar says:

    I think the double perfects are not ALWAYS redundant. For example:
    As a teenager, I would have loved to have known my father, who died before I was born. The wish was true when I was a teenager, but the knowing was true before that period of time, from birth to adolescence.
    Only if you have enough backward steps in your flashbacks can logic support such a structure, so they are admittedly rare, but may be logical, I think.

    1. Hello! Thank you for joining the discussion. It’s wonderful to have another voice and another perspective. 🙂
      Yes, I see what you are saying. With enough “backward steps” in the flashback (great phrasing, by the way), the structure could be logical. However, I still see use of that so-called double perfect that remains questionable.
      1. NBC Dateline (as listed on COCA) – “…we’ve not made the progress we would have liked to have seen.”
      2. ForeignAffairs (as listed on COCA) – “…Washington and its diplomatic partners would have liked to have seen even more from Beijing in this period.”
      Let’s see if others would like to chime in. It’s a good grammar point to explore together.

  2. Cece Dar says:

    2. Would you have liked to be born with a special power, such as mind reading?
    3. Filmmakers seem to have created ever natural and supernatural phenomenon, from multiple tornados to ghosts.

    May I nit-pick? 2. Would you like to have been born (the liking is present, the birth is previous) witha a special power?
    3. I don’t get the “ever”. Is there a typo?

    1. Good catch! Typo fixed and #2 adjusted.
      Two heads are truly better than one. 🙂

  3. Joe says:

    “2. Would you like to have been born (the liking is present, the birth is previous) witha a special power?
    3. I don’t get the “ever”. Is there a typo?”

    What is Cece Dar telling in the response? I don’t get it. Can anybody explain?

    1. There was a typo in the original document. I had typed “ever” instead of “every.”
      As for the question about special power, it’s still open for discussion. What do you think is best and why?
      a. Would you like to have been born with a special power?
      b. Would you have liked to be born with a special pwower?
      c. Would you have liked to have been born with a special power?

  4. Joe says:

    According to my grammar book,
    “perfect infinitives can refer to ‘unreal’ past situations that are the opposite of what really happened. I wish I’d been there – I would like to have seen Harry’s face when Nan walked in.

    With would like, would prefer and one or two other verbs, a double perfect infinitive is sometimes used in informal speech; the extra perfect infinitive does not change the meaning. I would have liked to have seen Harry’s face.”

    I am also confused about the usage of “If it wasn’t/weren’t for …” versus “If it hadn’t been for …”

    In one TV program about WWII, the two elders said of the lucky allied troops who escaped Hitler’s powerful army in Dunkirk. Can you explain the inconsistency in the following?

    “In Britain, ‘the miracle of the Dunkirk Little Ships’ has become the stuff of legend.”

    Person 1:
    “If it wasn’t for those 350,000 people who got back, they could never have built up the British army and eventually was the backbone of the fighting all over the world.”

    Person 2:
    “… and how lucky we are to have a freedom of our land, which we wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for the effort that these people …”

    1. Hi Joe,

      Thanks for checking additional resources. It makes sense that the so-called double perfective infinitives would not create a meaning difference. I suppose that one conclusion is that it’s just a pattern which has emerged and become frequent enough that it’s acceptable in everyday spoken English, if not in academic or professional contexts.

      As for the “weren’t for” for “hadn’t been” question, I wonder if again we’re running into a conflict between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. When we form conditionals, we know that if + weren’t expresses a present counterfactual meaning. If it weren’t raining, we’d have our picnic today. And if + hadn’t been expresses a past counterfactual meaning. If the ground hadn’t been so wet yesterday, we could have had a picnic. But to talk about the advantage or disadvantage of someone’s presence or involvement in a past situation, we hear both forms, as you observed:
      a) If it hadn’t been for those people, the British army wouldn’t have grown so strong.
      b) If it weren’t for those people, the British army wouldn’t have grown so strong.

      While the second example wouldn’t likely cause confusion, I think the first example makes most sense grammatically, doesn’t it? Especially when you consider these next examples:
      c) If it hadn’t been for my parents, I wouldn’t have had the money to pay for college. (past > Fact = the parents were there and they helped)
      d) If it weren’t for you, I’d be alone and sad. Thank you for being here when I really need a friend. (present > Fact = the friend is here and is helping)

      I might explore this question more… Good topic!

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