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I would prefer to have traveled by train.

I would have preferred to travel by train.

My textbook says that these sentences have the same meaning. But I have a feeling that the first sentence shows that you have a preference now. And in the second sentence you had a preference before.

For example I took the plane yesterday and it was my intention (I didn't want to take the train). But today I find out that something interesting happened on the train (they served free deserts). And I say: "I would prefer to have traveled by train." I cannot use the second sentence, because it implies I wanted to take the train yesterday, but somehow took the plane.

2 Answers 2

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In American English usage, the second sentence is more idiomatic than the first. Moreover, though "prefer" and "have preferred" are different tenses, the combination of conditionality ("I would") and past tense ("have traveled" and "have preferred") renders these phrases as essentially equivalent in meaning.

Even if, at the time of your decision, you did exactly what you preferred, the fact that you learned something later as opposed to knowing it in the past is not captured by changing "have preferred" to "prefer." The correct sentence can be expanded to read:

I would have preferred to travel by train, had I known that they were going to serve free desserts.

The fact that you made a deliberate decision is understood from context; the point of the "I would have preferred..." construction is to underscore the fact that you now have new information that you didn't have in the past, that would have affected the decisions you made in the past.

As a final note, in American English usage, "I would prefer..." would almost always be used with a present tense action, e.g., "I would prefer to go to the movies tonight."

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  • How about "I would have preferred to have travelled by train."? Is it redundant, using two perfect tenses (a perfect conditional and a perfect infinitive) in the same sentence? Isn't the perfect in the main clause enough, "I would have preferred to travel by train" enough?
    – user58319
    Sep 9, 2014 at 20:18
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According to "Practical English Usage - Third Edition - Michael Swan 288.2", the first sentence

I would prefer to have traveled by train

has the same meaning with

I would have preferred to have traveled by train.

The extra perfect infinitive have preferred does not change the meaning.

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  • I think op is correct in his texbook, 1 st sentence expresses preference in in present and another . . . . Before
    – yubraj
    May 31, 2016 at 2:59

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