Did I really believe she would agree?


Did I really believe she would have agreed?

What's the difference between the two? Is one more common/grammatically correct than the other?

  • Neat question! Because of the complexity of the elements being juxtaposed (past tense, questioning, irrealis, belief, agreement) I think most people would struggle to distinguish the different possibilities in their mind. And since we mainly do that with words (Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, and all that), I don't think you could necessarily rely on the average native speaker to either produce or understand the "right" form or meaning. But your #2 is much less common (and much more complex, I feel). Feb 17, 2014 at 4:58
  • Both versions are fine. The contrast between them might be similar to the contrast between the pair of: "I thought she would know better" vs "I thought she would have known better". A native English speaker would usually have a feel as to which version would be preferable in a specific situation, but would probably have difficulty in explaining the grammatical reasoning. Another tag for you to search for related info is "backshifting".
    – F.E.
    Feb 17, 2014 at 7:26

2 Answers 2


They convey slightly different meanings:

1) Did I really believe (then that) she would agree (with me now [or more recently])?


2) Did I really believe (then) that she would have agreed (with me back then)?

Sometimes you hear the first one used like the second. This is probably a result of people getting lazy in conversation and saying "Did I really believe that she would agree?" instead of "Did I really believe that she would've agreed?" The word "would've" is really cumbersome to pronounce so just leaving the (have) and (-ed) implicit is more instinctive in casual conversation if there is context to support the story.


OP's second version is cumbersome, ambiguous, and probably wouldn't be used at all. Belief and agreement are slippery concepts when we've got complex tense interactions like this, so I'll recast to something I find easier to deal with...

1: Did I know she would go?
2: Did I know she would have gone?

or more simply, since the fact of it being framed as a question doesn't affect the "awkward" part...

3: I knew [that] she would go
4: I knew [that] she would have gone

It's then much easier to see that in #3 what I knew (and what OP wondered if he believed) was that she would go at some later time (after the knowing/wondering).

But what I knew in #4 could be either of two possibilities (both grammatically credible)...

4a: ...that she had already gone (as in "Back in the 60s I would have been just a teenager")
4b: ...that if things were different she'd have gone, but for some reason she didn't go (and may never)

It's a bit more tricky to transfer the grammar of 4a/b to the semantics of OP's two versions.

To make sense of the 4a interpretation we have to assume her (already-made) agreement was with someone else (I could hardly be wondering whether she'd already agreed with me).

A simple "reason" that works for the 4b interpretation is to suppose that I never in fact asked her, which is why she didn't actually agree. But of course there could be any number of other reasons.

Regarding which form is more common, here are some relevant counts from Google Books,...

"I thought she would know" 18,700 results
""I thought she would have known"" 2 results
"I believed she would take [something]" 956 results
"I believed she would have taken [it]" 1 result

  • For 4a, is it a backshifted version of "I know [that] she will have gone."? @FumbleFingers
    – Kinzle B
    Apr 15, 2014 at 7:08
  • @Zhanlong: I'm not sure what "backshifting" means in the context of a complex "conditional" usage where she will have gone effectively means she went. In semantic terms, it's already "past tense". Superficially, the will part refers to a hypothetical "future knowledge" of what will become apparent upon further investigation, but that rationale is kinda weakened by the present tense verb know. Whatever - I assume you understand the two different possible meanings represented by 4a/4b. Apr 15, 2014 at 12:58
  • 4b is easy. 4a is a little bit confusing. you say "Back in the 60s I would have been just a teenager". Why not "Back in the 60s I was just a teenager"? Since it's not a hypothetical usage, how is this usage derived?
    – Kinzle B
    Apr 15, 2014 at 13:19
  • @Zhanlong: Of course it's confusing! I assume that's why OP has asked about it! The bottom line is it is a "hypothetical/irrealis" usage - it really does mean this is what we will find IF we look into it (or this is what we would find IF we looked/were to look into it). To native speakers such usages are perfectly natural, even in contexts where some other element implies that we already have looked into it. Thus, "I know that I would have been a teenager in the 60s" is a perfectly credible alternative to "I know that I was a teenager in the 60s". Apr 15, 2014 at 15:25
  • 1
    @Zhanlong: The reason "I would think so" is less "committed" than "I think so" is because the "irrealis" aspect places the assertion somewhere other than "here and now". Using the superficially "past" form "I would have thought so" simply places it even further away, (metaphorically - it's actually nothing to do with past/present as such). For native speakers, it's just another natural way of "distancing" the speaker from an assertion - which can be taken even further by saying "One would have thought so" - to avoid even mentioning I/me (the person here now speaking). Apr 16, 2014 at 13:57

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