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Don't get tense over tenses

This specimen has been submitted to the Grammar Lab:

The following turns up frequently:

I think we would have loved to have done even more.

You could say

. . .we would love to have done even more. or

. . .would have loved doing even more.

or . . . would have loved to do even more.

but I'm certain that "would have loved to have done" is wrong. It's like doubling the past and throwing in the conditional for lagniappe, which suggests the kind of time-travel found only in science-fiction.

Do you know the name of this fault?

I could sure utilize, as they say, your help.

The specimen sentence smudges the sequence of tenses in English. The perfect tenses — with an auxiliary verb attached to the past participle — work to establish distinctions in the time of actions or states of being.

We would love to have done even more expresses a feeling in the present about a past action.

We would have loved to do more expresses a feeling in the past about a past action.

We would have loved to have done even more is a jumble. The present perfect — have plus a past participle — indicates a past action compared with a present time. This sentence has two conditional past perfects without establishing a clear relationship to the present. The alternatively worded sentences clearly establish a relationship in time.

There is a useful entry on verb tenses at Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab).



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:26 AM | | Comments (6)


what me worry?

"I think we would have loved to have done even more."

Doesn't that express a feeling in the present about a feeling in the past about an action in the past? Just one dumb old engineer's opinion.

I'd argue that "would have loved to do more" suggests a feeling in the past regarding an action in which the feeling and action are coincident in time. And that for the phrase "would have loved to have done more", the feeling is in the past, and the action was farther in the past.

Doesn't seem like an impossible scenario, but I'd agree that this doesn't reflect the typical intent.

Harry's remark seems well-taken. The offending sentence could be appropriate, for example, in commenting on a past event that involved an assessment of an activity that took place before the assessment. "At the conclusion of the program, we took stock of our efforts. We were satisfied with what we had accomplished but I think we would have loved to have done even more."

I would have loved to learn all of the tenses before Spanish class in high school.

Sure I learned how to conjugate verbs and speak properly in every tense, but never heard "present perfect" as a grammar term until Spanish class, and that was to my detriment.

Thanks for this one, John. This is one of my bugaboos and many seemingly well-educated people get this one wrong.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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