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Here is a snippet from an article on CNN

And of course the fiscal cliff turned out to be a dud. Why would we have thought otherwise? It somehow makes perfect sense that Washington created its own gargantuan hurdle and then crawled around it, with both sides promising to climb the real mountain another day.

I'm confused with the meaning and sentence structure of "Why would we have thought otherwise?".

we have thought == past form of will + present perfect verb form -- is this structure correct? I have not seen other examples where would is followed by present perfect verb form. What does "would" imply in this sentence?

I suppose the sentence meant to say "why did we thought otherwise?".

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"Why did we thought otherwise" is grammatically incorrect. Another way to say "Why would we have thought otherwise" is "Why would we think otherwise." –  Jeremy Jan 6 '13 at 5:47
    
It might also have said "Why did we think otherwise?" The writer is saying that there is no evidence to believe that the Reps or the Dems would take the fiscal cliff seriously enough to do anything reasonable to fix the problem. They've been ignoring fiscal reality for the past two years because they've been playing partisan politics. Neither side wants to solve the problem: they want to use it to damage the other party. We should have expected them to continue to ignore the problem & put off solving the problem until the last second. –  user21497 Jan 6 '13 at 6:13
    
@Nile No, "would have thought otherwise" and "would think otherwise" are quite different. They are not equivalent. Conditional and conditional perfect are not interchangeable. –  tchrist Jan 6 '13 at 6:38
    
I think this is General Reference: see conditional perfect on Wikipedia. –  tchrist Jan 6 '13 at 6:41
    
@Nile - is "why did we think otherwise" grammatically correct? Since "did" is in the past tense I used "thought" (past tense of think). –  Alex Jan 6 '13 at 15:29

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The construction might be easier to understand as a statement rather than as a question. We would have thought otherwise, if the economy had been in better shape is a sentence on the pattern sometimes taught to foreign learners as the third conditional. It describes something that didn’t happen, and is formed by would (or some other modal verb) + have + past participle in the main clause, and if + past perfect in the ‘if’ clause.

When a sentence containing a modal verb (would in this case) becomes a question beginning with one of the wh- words (why in this case), the subject and the modal verb are inverted. That is how we end up with Why would we have thought otherwise?

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thanks for your answer. So it is a question in conditional perfect form without explicitly specifying the if-clause, right? Is it grammatically correct to not specify the if-clause in these sentences? –  Alex Jan 6 '13 at 19:44
1  
It is an instance of the use of would to express 'unreal meaning'. The implication is that we didn't think otherwise. –  Barrie England Jan 6 '13 at 19:56

Actually, I believe that this sentence is grammatically accurate. "Why would we have thought otherwise"? It is the have which acts as a qualifier. It's called an auxiliary verb. Here's a link: http://grammar.about.com/od/basicsentencegrammar/a/prperfectense.htm

Another way to word the sentence would be to say "what would cause us to think otherwise?"

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