For a non-native speaker as myself, such a complex structure is really giving the creeps.

This book ought to have been going to have been being bound for six month since Tuesday.

What tense is it? How to understand it? Is it Future perfect continuous in the past?

The sentence was found in a comic strip on this Language Log website.

In a comment at that website, a user (Dan Lufkin) said, "Wow! This opens up new vistas in complex tenses. Chomsky's trifecta P This book has been being bound for six months can become Come next Tuesday, this book will be going to have been being bound…. And if something happens before Tuesday, you can add a little modality: This book ought to have been going to have being bound… A syntactic structure to be proud of, indeed."

in next post, he added, "Whoops! Make that This book ought to have been going to have been being bound … Dunno how I could have made such an elementary mistake."

  • 1
    Where did you find it? It's giving this native speaker the creeps, too. – J.R. Nov 23 '16 at 10:47
  • @J.R. languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2123 here's the source. – SovereignSun Nov 23 '16 at 10:51
  • @Rompey I'll edit the question. I have no idea. I'm still having problems with understanding Future Perfect Continuous. – SovereignSun Nov 23 '16 at 15:06
  • 2
    I think the whole point of the sentence is to give you the creeps. Wordplay by linguists can lead you into a black hole. – John Feltz Nov 23 '16 at 15:40

I think it might be one of those sentences that is technically correct but is not anything anyone would ever be likely to actually say, because it's very confusing. That's kind of the joke that the comic strip and the discussion are making.

But yes, technically in English you can keep chaining together tenses and constructions like that:

  • The book is being bound (a passive construction indicating that as of right now, someone is binding the book)
  • The book has been being bound (as of right now, someone has been binding the book for a while)
  • The book is going to have been being bound (at a point in the future, someone will have been binding the book for a while)
  • The book ought to have been going to have been being bound (at some point in the past we expected that at some point in the future someone would have been binding the book...I think!)

Really complex phrasings like this are usually only necessary when we're talking about time travel, which raises all kinds of issues that don't usually come up!

| improve this answer | |
  • Stangdon, you've opened my eyes wide. Especially with the last explanation. Is it okay to do that in English or is it abnormal? – SovereignSun Nov 23 '16 at 15:52
  • 5
    @SovereignSun - If it was normal, everyday speech, they probably wouldn't have discussed it at such length at the website. :-) – J.R. Nov 23 '16 at 16:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.