I came across this sentence:

For four months now John has been going to have finished his novel by today.

I would like to know if "John has been going to have finished…" is the structure going to (special expression to talk about the future) in present perfect progressive which I find very weird.

Would it be a mistake to just use "to finish his novel…" instead of "to have finished his novel…"?

  • I don't see anything wrong with either version, although I do have a certain sense that if John has been going to have finished it, this more strongly implies that he regularly made this [overconfident?] prediction. Other than that, it seems much the same as the difference between him saying "I'll have finished it by Xmas" and "I'll finish it by Xmas". – FumbleFingers Jul 25 '14 at 16:42
  • This is not a tense (if you can call it that) that one often finds a use for. But the structure of verbs in the English language permits it, and it's quite clear what it means. – Peter Shor Jul 25 '14 at 18:04

This is a somewhat facetious sentence. The meaning is that for four months, John has been going around every day saying, “I’m going to have finished my novel by tomorrow”, i.e., by the next day, he’ll have his novel all finished.

When ‘tomorrow’ comes and he still hasn’t finished the novel, of course, his statement can be related in indirect speech as, “He said that he was going to have finished his novel by today”.

After a while, someone less than kindly points out that John has now been “going to have finished” his novel “by today” for no less than four months—rather a distant use of the word ‘tomorrow’.

You cannot quite simplify the sentence as “For four months now John has been going to finish his novel by tomorrow”, because of that little preposition by. By indicates here a point in time when a certain action is already in a state of completion (has already been completed). It does not indicate the the time when the action is completed—we would use no preposition at all for that, at least not when the time is an adverb-like word1 like tomorrow or today (or something like at or on for regular nouns).

Thus, if he had said “I’m going to finish my novel tomorrow!”, then he would have been talking about the point in time when the novel is finished, and you could similarly simplify your sentence to “For four months now John has been going to finish his novel today”. But if he originally said that he was going to “have finished my novel by tomorrow” (i.e., he might finish it tonight, or it might not be until tomorrow morning—but when the period tomorrow ends, the book will exist in a state of completed finishedness), and you report this faithfully, then you have little choice but to keep all the (deliberately) heavy and clumsy auxiliaries.


1 Various theories place words like today and tomorrow in different categories: adverbs, noun, determiners, even pronouns. The details are unimportant here, just know that they function a bit different from regular nouns.

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  • Very smart and insightful analysis. So if I understand it well, the word „today“ in the sentence does not refer to the particular day when the sentence was said. „Today“ is contained in the whole four months. – bart-leby Jul 25 '14 at 20:15
  • @bart-leby Yes, exactly. Every single day in the four months was a ‘today’ that came and went. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 25 '14 at 20:16

'to have finished' makes sense

Strange! Good question: I'm unsure if this is correct grammar, rather verbose.

However, in this context (going literally to a location), it can make sense:

For four months now John has been going {to his summer cabin} to have finished his novel by today {deadline the manuscript is due to his agent}.

If this sentence is plucked out of context, it appears to be awkward, but placing it within context of a passage/story/anecdote, it doesn't 'sound' weird.

It appears that to have finished implies John has a deliverable (deadline) to produce and it should technically be finished by a certain time.

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  • This is not about going to places or meeting deadlines. This is quite simply going to [infinitive] to show immediate future. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 25 '14 at 16:37
  • Verbosity is not the same as correct grammar. They are independent. – John Lawler Jul 25 '14 at 16:37
  • sure, and they can still be in the same sentence – user86227 Jul 25 '14 at 16:38
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    There is no "going literally to a location" in the given sentence. Your insertion of "{to his summer cabin}" changes the meaning of the sentence (and renders it ungrammatical by having "to have finished" where "to finish" would be correct). – Hellion Jul 25 '14 at 16:50

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