Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Thurber Tonight: The Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage: VIII. The Perfect Infinitive


Above: Sometimes all that's needed, really, is a little bit of simple logic. Below: We have the next-to-last installment of "The Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide." -- Ken

The Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide
to Modern English Usage

VIII. The Perfect Infinitive

It is easy enough to say that a person should live in such a way as to avoid the perfect infinitive after the past conditional, but it is another matter to do it. The observance of the commonest amenities of life constantly leads us into that usage. Let us take a typical case. A gentleman and his wife, calling on friends, find them not at home. The gentleman decides to leave a note of regret couched in a few well-chosen words, and the first thing he knows he is involved in this: "We would have liked to have found you in." Reading it over, the gentleman is assailed by the suspicion that he has too many "haves," and that the whole business has somehow been put too far into the past. His first reaction is to remedy this by dating the note: "9 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, 1931." This at once seems too formal, and with a sigh he starts in again on the sentence itself. That is where he makes a fatal mistake. The simplest way out, as always, is to seek some other method of expressing the thought. In this case the gentleman should simply dash off, "Called. You were out. Sorry," and go home to bed. What he does, however, is to lapse into a profound study of this particular grammatical situation, than which there is no more hazardous mental occupation. His wife should, above all things, not choose this time to nag at him, or hurry him. His condition now calls for the utmost kindness and consideration.

First the victim will change the sentence to: "We would have liked to find you in." Now as a matter of fact, this is correct (barring the use of "would" instead of "should"), but, alas, the gentleman does not realize it. Few people ever do realize it. This is because the present infinitive, "to find," seems to imply success. They therefore fall back on the perfect infinitive, "to have found," because it implies that the thing hoped for did not come to pass. They have fallen back on it so often that, after the ordinary past tenses, its use has come to be counted as idiomatic, even though it is incorrect. After past conditionals, however -- such as our gentleman caller has got into -- the use of the perfect infinitive is not even idiomatic. It is just dangerous.

The gentleman, with two variants on his hands, takes to mumbling them to himself, first one and then the other -- "We would have liked to have found you in," "We would have liked to find you in." After he does this several times, both expressions begin to sound meaningless. They don't make any sense at all, let alone make precise sense. His mental feeling is analogous to the terror that strikes into children's minds when they get to repeating some common word, like "saucer," over and over again, until it sounds idiotic and legendary. At this point it would be infinitely better not to leave any note at all, but the gentleman's education and his strength of mind have been challenged. He takes an envelope out of his pocket and grimly makes a list of all the possible combinations, thus getting: "We would have liked to have found," "We would have liked to find," "We would like to have found," and "We would like to find." A dull pain takes him back of the ears. This is the danger sign, and his wife should have the presence of mind to summon assistance, for he is now out of hand and uncontrollable. What she does, however, is to say, "Here, let me write it." He instantly snarls, "I'm no child" or "Get away" or some such thing, and his difficulties are added to by the quarrel which follows. At length he has the bright inspiration of going into the hope clauses and turns out: "We had hoped to have been able to have found." If he has married the right kind of woman, she will hastily scratch a brief word on a calling card, shove it under the door, and drag her husband away. Otherwise he will sink rapidly into a serious mental state, from which it may take him weeks to emerge.

There is a simple rule about past conditionals which will prevent a lapse into that deep contemplation which is so often fatal. After "would have liked," "would have hoped," "would have feared," etc., use the present indicative. The implication of non-fulfillment is inherent in the governing verb itself, that is, in the "would have liked," etc. You don't have to shade the infinitive to get a nice note of frustration. Let it alone. Dr. Fowler himself says: "Sometimes a writer, dimly aware that 'would have liked to have done' is wrong, is yet so fascinated by the perfect infinitive that he clings to that at all costs." That's what it is -- a fascination -- like a cobra's for a bird. Avoid the perfect infinitive after the past conditional as you would a cobra.

TOMORROW NIGHT: "The Car We Had to Push" from My Life and Hard Times

THURBER TONIGHT: Check out the series to date


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At 12:37 AM, Blogger Murr Brewster said...

I will have liked to remember this rule, but I'll probably end up sending a fruit basket instead.


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