I've come across the following sentence on a BBC Learning English page:

  1. I would have liked to have seen John before he left for Canada, but Mary didn't want to.

I was just wondering can we also say the sentences I wrote below? Do they make sense? If so what is the difference between these three sentences?

  1. I would have liked to saw John before he left for Canada, but Mary didn't want to.
  2. I would have liked to see John before he left for Canada, but Mary didn't want to.

Some people might think OP's original text using the Perfect Infinitive (to have seen) is more "logical" because it more explicitly echoes the past tense element of would have liked. But note this from Garner's Modern American Usage (2009)...

would have liked
...should invariably be followed by a present-tense infinitive — hence would have liked to go, would have liked to read, not would have liked to have gone, would have liked to have read.

Having said that, Garner himself acknowledges that the erroneous phrasings are very common. In fact, Google Books claims 386,000 written instances of would have liked to have seen. That's not so common as the "correct" version would have liked to see with 1,050,000 instances, but I think it's enough to justify saying that unless you need to pass a "fussy" exam, you could reasonably call it a stylistic choice.

OP's "Simple Past" version I would have liked to saw is idiomatically and grammatically unacceptable.

EDIT: I see the question has been edited to tell us that the supposedly "incorrect" (according to Garner) version actually comes from a BBC Learning English page. I take this as further evidence (if it were needed) that Garner's position is unjustifiably pedantic/prescriptive. And comparing American and British charts on Google NGrams, I see no evidence that his position reflects any kind of AmE/BrE usage split.

At the risk of stoking controversy on what I consider to be something of a non-issue, I'll just cite this from grammarphobia, who also seem to have little time for Garner's position...

Using two “haves” (as in, “I would have liked to have gone”) is usually incorrect, because it’s unlikely that you really intend to talk about two separate times in the past.

  • 4
    I would have liked to saw could be grammatical, but in that case it means "I would have liked to cut John into pieces", which is just slightly different. – Nate Eldredge Feb 27 '15 at 16:24
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    @Nate: True, but I think in the context of OP's question we can safely dismiss that as "a contrivance too far" :) – FumbleFingers Feb 27 '15 at 16:29
  • @200_success: I've rolled back your edit, because I specifically am not saying only one of the three versions is "acceptable". Two of them are okay by me. – FumbleFingers Feb 27 '15 at 17:50
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    Would Garner have liked to have seen John sawn by Mary before he went to Canada, Mexico, and Greenland? – Jim Reynolds Feb 27 '15 at 17:57
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    Sorry, I don't understand. You say some people think it's more correct? But you quote Garner who says it's wrong? But underneath you say you think Garner's wrong. And there's no vetted grammar source anywhere. Sorry, FF, what are you saying? – Araucaria Feb 27 '15 at 23:45

Your second sentence (I would have liked to saw John…) is definitely wrong. To introduces an infinitive, and the verb to saw is very different from the verb to see! It means this:

Magician apparently sawing a person in half

… or worse. I wouldn't blame Mary for not wanting to go along.

Based on the same source cited by @FumbleFingers, I would consider the first sentence (I would have liked to have seen John…) non-standard English. However, it is still understandable, and admittedly common.

Therefore, of the three sentences, I would say that the last sentence (I would have liked to see John…) to be the most correct choice.

  • Not yet, but -1 soon, if you decide to stick to the line that Garner's Modern American Usage (2009) is a helpful or accurate resource for language learners (or anyone else). It's pretty straightforward that if it's "understandable and admittedly common" in standard English - it's STANDARD, not non-standard. +2 otherwise. Will be checking back later ... – Araucaria Feb 27 '15 at 22:50
  • @Araucaria: this answer doesn't mention Garner and doesn't appear to have been edited. Did you intend to post your comment to FumbleFinger's answer? – Harry Johnston Feb 27 '15 at 23:11
  • @HarryJohnston It has a link to FF's post, and says "Based on the same source cited by Fumblefingers, I would consider the first sentence ... non-standard English" - the source is Garner : ( Shame - cuz the picture's fab! – Araucaria Feb 27 '15 at 23:23

I'm not aware of any grammatical rule on this topic but I think that there is a slight difference between "I would have liked to have seen" and "I would have liked to see". I think the first one could be used for something that you never had the chance to see, as in "I would have liked to have seen the Colosseum when it was first built." Obviously that's impossible. However, if you were in Rome last year and didn't go to visit it, then "I would have liked to see the Colosseum" is more suitable. In the 2nd example you missed an opportunity, whereas in the 1st you never had the opportunity.


The way I see it is thus:

"I would have liked to have seen" is because both verbs take place in the past.

"I would have liked to see" would be where "like" is in the past and "to see" in the present relatively speaking. Whether this is correct or not, I feel it is logical.

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