(1.1)She turned up at the doorstep of my house in Cornwall. (1.2)No way could I have sent her away.(1.3)No way, not me anyway. (1.4)Maybe someone had kicked her out of their car the night before. (1.5)"We're moving house." (1.6)"No space for her any more with the baby coming." (1.7)"We never really wanted her, but what could we have done? (1.8)She was a present." (1.9) People find all sorts of excuses for abandoning an animal. (1.10)And she was one of the most beautiful dogs I had ever seen.
(2.1)I called her Goldie. (2.2)If I had known what was going to happen I would have given her a more creative name. (2.3)She was so unsettled during those first few days. (2.4)She hardly ate anything and had such an air of sadness about her. (2.5)There was nothing I could do to make her happy, it seemed. (2.6)Heaven knows what had happened to her at her previous owner ' s. (2.7)But eventually at the end of the first week she calmed down. (2.8)Always by my side, whether we were out on one of our long walks or sitting by the fire.
(3.1)That 's why it was such a shock when she pulled away from me one day when we were out for a walk. (3.2)We were a long way from home, when she started barking and getting very restless. (3.3)Eventually I couldn't hold her any longer and she raced off down the road towards a farmhouse in the distance as fast as she could.
(4.1)By the time I reached the farm I was very tired and upset with Goldie. (4.2)But when I saw her licking the four puppies I started to feel sympathy towards them. (4.3)"We didn't know what had happened to her," said the woman at the door. (4.4)"I took her for a walk one day, soon after the puppies were born, and she just disappeared. (4.5)"She must have tried to come back to them and got lost," added a boy from behind her.
(5.1)I must admit I do miss Goldie, but I've got Nugget now, and she looks just like her mother. (5.2)And I've learnt a good lesson: not to judge people.

My question is : How to parse the tense of the sentence in bold? If I were the author, I would write the sentence like this: We never really want her, but what could we do ?

  • 1
    No. The writer is expressing the idea that at the time she turned up, they never really wanted a dog, but when she showed up, they felt they had no choice but to take her in. Your proposal mixes tenses incorrectly. You might say, "We never really want her, but what can we do?" But that would mean something completely different from the author's intent.
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 2:18

2 Answers 2


The what could we have done? means that the speaker felt there was no alternative to the course of action that was taken. There is an else implied: what else could we have done?

In this case,

"We never really wanted her, but what could we have done? She was a present."

is suggesting the original owners never wanted a dog, but were given one as a present, so had to accept it (due to social conventions, probably, or not wanting to offend the gift-giver). It's being listed as a possible excuse the unknown owners made to themselves for kicking the dog out of the car the night before (if that's what they did).


The sentence should be written as it is in the original (bolded). "never wanted" is being used to show a long range of time beginning at a point in the past -- "never want" implies prediction for the future or repeated action.

The author is giving examples of the excuses that people use when they abandon pets. Using the simple past negated, "never wanted," means that the speaker did not want the dog when they got it. It shows that the speaker (person giving the excuse) would not have willingly had a dog at any time -- and so is not responsible for keeping it.

  • I never wanted a dog. So, I never tried to get one.
  • I never want a dog. I will never get one.

Using the simple present, as in "we never want her," implies a prediction for the future or a repeated action. There are two problems with this use. First, the action described was in the past, not a prediction for the future. Second, it does not make sense to talk about wanting a pet as a repeated action, rather it would be an ongoing state.

  • I want a dog.
  • I don't want a dog.

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