I have seen the following sentence:

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

I hope I understand it (I assume it says that he has been trying to finish his novel for 4 months, every days saying "Today I will finish").

What difference would it make if there was not the past infinitive but just "to finish his novel by today"?


  • I can't answer your question, but the meaning of the sentence is ambiguous. It is more likely to mean that for all the past four months John was expecting to have finished his novel by [the date on which the writer is writing the sentence or the date they are writing about]. It could have the meaning you ascribe but if that was the writer's intention it is rather clumsily worded. – Marv Mills Jul 26 '14 at 9:24
  • The second sentence should just be "to finish his novel today". – Peter Shor Jul 26 '14 at 11:34

That’s not a ‘past’ infinitive—infinitives have no tense—but a ‘perfect infinitive’. The difference a simple construction and a perfect expression is usually that

  • the simple construction narrates the event, locating it at the time that is being discussed—Reference Time, RT

  • the perfect construction mentions the event as something that happened before RT and gave rise to an interesting state which obtains at RT

In the case at hand, the simple version BE going to finish would represent John’s prediction of when he would finish his novel, while the given perfect version BE going to have finished represents John’s prediction of when, having finished, he would be free to do something else, such as submit the novel to a publisher.

This prediction is embedded within a continuative present perfect, which represents the prediction as a repeated or habitual state of activity which has persisted throughout the four months leading up to the present—Speech Time, ST.

As Marv Mills points out, there is an ambiguity in the reference of today: does it mean that for the past four months John’s target for finishing the novel has been the ‘today’ of ST or that that has been a moving target, each day of the past four months? In real utterances, context will ordinarily resolve this ambiguity.

But this sentence is not a real utterance with a real context. It is an academic invention designed to illustrate a grammatical point:

Next to absolute-relative tenses and complex relative tenses, there are a few (nameless) tenses that are even more complex, because they involve three temporal relations:

For four months now John has been going to have finished his novel by today, [but it is not finished yet.] (= ‘For four months now John has said that he was going to have finished his novel by today.’)

Consequently, it is futile to inquire what the author ‘means’: the meaning is not linguistic but metalinguistic.

Declerck et al., The Grammar of the English Tense System, I, 26.

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