Friend Farlow, who was a lawyer of sorts, and ought to have been able to give me some solid advice, was too much occupied with Jean's cancer to do anything more than what he had promised.

What would be difference if we removed had here? Would the sentence convey the same meaning?

1 Answer 1


Using the "had" in your sentence means that Farlow promised something before he became occupied with Jean's cancer, the latter being the reason for not being any more helpful than that. Removing the "had" would sort of remove the sequence of these events.

But with or without it - the meaning wouldn't change much: Farlow can only provide some basic help because he is too busy caring for Jean. For me, the sentence feels better with the "had", though.

  • Indeed. Semantic considerations suggest that the promise must be earlier, so the meaning is not changed by omitting the 'had'. But it's clearer with 'had'.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 13, 2016 at 14:51
  • It's not strictly true that including "had" means we're referencing promises Farlow made before he became otherwise occupied. I think if we're going to be precise, it means before the current "narrative reference time" (the point in past time at which the writer felt Farlow could have been more helpful). Without "had" it would be possible to interpret the time of making promises much more flexibly - even into the "narrative future" (later than both his preoccupation with Jean's cancer and the time when the writer might have wished for more help). Jul 13, 2016 at 15:04

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