I have a question regarding "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. The book is written in past tense and uses past perfect form to tell us of what had happened before, but in this sentence Cormac uses present perfect instead:

"In the produce section in the bottom of the bins they found a few ancient runner beans and what looked to have once been apricots, long dried to wrinkled effigies of themselves."

My question is why Cormac haven't written:

...and what looked to had once been apricots...

Is this a case of unwritten modal, as if: "and what looked to must/could have once been apricots"

Also in a spirit of the question above, how would native speaker react to such construction:

"They partied all night, loads of alcohol, not less drugs and sexual levity. The party has been sublime."

What if a whole chapter before this fragment had been only using past simple and past perfect, and then it tacked on this present perfect sentence; does it change the narrator from an observer to an active participant?

  • 2
    The construction is look to be, where the verb following "look" must be in a non-finite form. "Looked to had been" is just ungrammatical. And yes, "sublime" sounds pretty enjoyable.
    – Yay
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 20:29
  • Thanks! So "looked" in this case works like a modal by itself, restricting tenses to only two; past and perfect? Also to add to the second question. What I meant was, what if whole chapter before "it" was only using past simple and past perfect, and then tacks on this present perfect sentence; does it change the narrator from an observer to an active participant?
    – user143977
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 20:57
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    Look to be, look to have been, looked to be, looked to have been. There is an implied perceiver, not necessarily the narrator. The narrator can indirectly reflect/reveal the thoughts of a character.
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 21:09
  • 1
    Jakub: Maybe, but I can't tell for sure. BTW, you should add that last thing to your question. Otherwise, it looks like a stand-alone question with no relation to the rest of the body. Also, modal verb isn't the best term to describe "look". I'd rather say it's a catenative verb.
    – Yay
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 21:25
  • Thank you for a solid term to pin down the idea with which i can do more research. Also edited the 2nd question; if someone knows the answer or examples where narrator shifted his perspective then please.
    – user143977
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 21:46

2 Answers 2


The have there does not act as the present-tense form but as the infinitive form: the to is an "infinitive marker" which makes that unambiguous.

To have acts as an auxiliary in the infinitive perfect construction to have been. The verb look may take an infinitival complement, thus:

They looked to be apricots.
They looked to have been apricots.

One of the many functions of the perfect construction is to mark the state or event it designates as prior to the current "Reference Time"—the time with which the discourse is primarily concerned. Since an infinitive has no time reference in itself but 'borrows' its time reference from the discourse in which it is embedded, the perfect infinitive is employed to express the fact that at the past Reference Time when they were found the appearance of the objects was not that of current apricots but that of former apricots, now transformed into something else.

You might paraphrase this without infinitives thus:

They found a few ancient runner beans and objects which looked they had once been apricots.

  • Thank you for simple yet coherent answer. Do you know a way to look up a list or examples of idiomatic expressions that follow suit?--As I realized "seemed to/loved to" also comply to these rules.
    – user143977
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 22:57
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    @Jakub )AS Yay says above catenative verb is a good place to start. Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 23:30

"to have once been apricots" contains an infinitive perfect of "to be".

The infinitive has four forms:


Present - to write

Perfect - to have written


Present - to be written

Perfect - to have been written

There are also continuous forms. http://www.grammaring.com/the-forms-of-the-infinitive

to be has no passive, so there are only two active forms:

Present - to be

Perfect - to have been

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