might have had to stay

How should I understand this sentence?

He might have had to stay late tonight.

"might have had to stay" implies that the "stay" happened in the past, but "tonight" is a future time. I'm confused.


I know where the problem is. Is this sentence a subjunctive mood or it's just a normal statement in past tense?

If it's a subjunctive mood, it's perfectly normal.

He might have had to stay late tonight. (But now he has left.)

If it's a normal statement in past tense, it sounds a bit odd. Because we don't know when he will leave, it may occur in the future.

  • 2
    I think your confusion is just about the word tonight. It does not mean a future time; it can also mean a present time ("Here we are tonight at Buckingham Palace!") or even a past time if it refers to the same day ("Tonight I stopped at Westminster Abbey before I came home") – stangdon Mar 8 '18 at 18:12
  • Tonight is a time that has not yet finished. My answer addresses this specifically. By the way, the time period can also be yesterday, last week etc. but in that case there is no problem, I assume. – Lambie Mar 8 '18 at 20:37

It's not the staying that happened in the past. It's the obligation to stay. Might have had to stay indicates that at some point before now, he was given the obligation to stay.

If you want to describe it strictly in the present tense, you could say, "He might be having to stay late tonight." It sounds a little odd to my ear, but I think that's simply because have doesn't often appear in the present progressive (be having) tense.

  • Only it is not the past, that's the trick. Tonight is now, the present. That's the whole point. As I am saying this, he might have had to stay tonight. It is still tonight. – Lambie Mar 8 '18 at 23:45
  • He might have had to stay late last night. He might have had to stay late last week. He might have had to stay late on his birthday last year. He might have had to stay late 16 times in 1995. "The whole point" is that what's being described is the obligation, not the staying. – spoko Mar 8 '18 at 23:55
  • Nope, you don't get it: He might have had to stay late TONIGHT is not: He might have had to stay late LAST NIGHT. It is similar to: He has gone out today. He has played today. Today is not yet over. – Lambie Mar 9 '18 at 0:04
  • I'm pretty comfortable with the level at which I get it. – spoko Mar 9 '18 at 0:52

Might plus perfect infinitive is used to express doubt about something in the past when one is not sure it occurred.

However, the reason tonight is OK, is because the night is not yet over.

He might have gone to school today, I don't know. [implication: the day is still going on].

In this sense, it is similar to the present perfect when used to express something at the present time about a past that is not specified precisely.

He has gone to school today. [the day is still ongoing as I speak] He went to school today. [his going as an event is over as I speak]

He might have gone to school today. [He went at some point before this time of speaking, while the day is still the same day].

  • The reason tonight is OK, is because the night is not yet over. Is it? "He might have had to eat lunch alone" is OK, even well after lunch is over. "He might have had to walk to work this morning" is OK, even (especially) when spoken in the afternoon. For that matter, "He might have had to stay late last night" works just fine. – spoko Mar 8 '18 at 18:38
  • |He might have had to eat lunch alone| does not contain tonight, today, this week, this year or some other indication of a period of time. I am saying that HERE it means the period of time is not yet extinguished to use a legal term. If you say this MORNING, the day is not yet finished. Otherwise, you would say: yesterday morning. So, my idea is correct. I was specifically addressing the idea of TONIGHT. That does not mean you are obliged to use a time period at all. The question specifically asked about that. – Lambie Mar 8 '18 at 19:25
  • He might have had to eat lunch alone yesterday. How does the addition of the time make any difference? – spoko Mar 8 '18 at 19:42
  • I was answering the specific question re including a time period in an utterance. I never ever said the utterance cannot refer to a time that is finished. The addition of the TIME in the past makes no difference, it's when the time period is not yet over that is confusing to non-native speakers. I thought you might have understood that this afternoon (EST USA time). – Lambie Mar 8 '18 at 20:36
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    Alright, I've got your point, it's grammatically correct and logical. But if being said in real life conversation, I feel it a little odd. – preachers Mar 8 '18 at 21:34

He might have had to say late tonight = it is possible that he was required to stay late tonight.

Tonight = this night. It does NOT necessarily refer to the future. It could be the evening time already, which we would refer to as "tonight". I am very hungry tonight. or I am very sleepy tonight.

He might have had to stay late tonight. A wife might say those words to her sister when the former's husband did not come home by his usual 7PM.

His mobile phone might have run out of power, so that he could not phone to tell me that he would be getting home late tonight.

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