The Australian government’s own stunningly creative proposal had been to house sixty thousand refugees in a disused leper colony on the northwest coast, for however many decades it took to farm them out around the world at a politically acceptable rate.

How long until he had the place to himself again for however much time it took to sell? Could be weeks, could be years. He'd been sincere when he'd told her it would be difficult to find a buyer...

In both cases the clause is about future events. Then, why is the Past Simple used, "took", why not the Future-in-the-Past, "would take"? Apparently, there's no conditional here.

  • @Yosef Baskin Well, now I think I understand you. There are two possible points of view - one of the speaker, and the other one of the Austr.government itself. The speaker says (looking at the past events): They planned to house them no matter how long it would take to end... and so on. The Austr.government says (in the past, looking at the imaginary results of their actons): We had planned to house them no matter how long it took to end... The Past Perfect is important here, it says that the planning happened first, before 'how long it took to end'. Right? – Michael Login Mar 15 '17 at 20:45

It means "Even if in hindsight, it took perhaps some overly long time, maybe 15 years."

In example 1, Australia housed refugees for a long time. They planned to house them no matter how long it took to end the ordeal of farming them away. If the job did ever finish, we could ask "How much time did it take?" answered in Past Simple by "It took 15 years." Similarly you want the Past Simple when saying that “The refugees suffered 15 years. The house sat forever before he sold it.

Even in the sense that Australia had a proposal, planners still had a picture of the results. They did not care however much time it took after the job finished and history could look back on it, asking "It took how long?"

It is not the future in the past, but the past in the future: In the future, we may look back to whatever time it took to farm out refugees or sell the place

  • I may disagree with details or terminology, but overall the question has been clarified. It's interesting that Google has almost even results of the queries: "no matter how long it would take" = 421000, "no matter how long it took" = 504000 – Michael Login Mar 15 '17 at 21:12
  • @MvLog Yes. The past tense "took" is being driven by the pluperfect, or at least past sense of the main clause. "He had decided to wait for however long it took to succeed". But equally idiomatic in the same context would be "would take". – WS2 Mar 15 '17 at 21:23
  • @WS2 I do agree, both variants are possible with subtle nuances of meaning which I, not being a native speaker, can't readily grasp. – Michael Login Mar 15 '17 at 21:30

... for however much time it took ...
... for however much time it would take ...

Both of these are ‘backshifted’ from present-tense plans. English employs both simple presents and modal present to express futurity; if you turn them into presumptive direct speech so that they're ‘foreshifted’ again, you see (or you will see!) that both are acceptable, and both have the same future time reference:

They said “We will house the refugees ... for however long it takes ...”
They said “We will house the refugees ... for however long it will take ...”

The version with will is not to my taste, but it is congruent with the use of modal may (however long it may take), it is widespread, and it is unobjectionable.


In these cases, the Future Past Perfect is used. Unfortunately, this level of instruction is rarely taught anymore. Kind of like the Royal Plural.

For this usage to be technically correct, it should have been, "...for however many decades it had taken..." but how anal do we really need to be?

  • I don't think you're right. The first quotation is from Greg Egan's Quarantine and he is grammatically anal indeed. I suppose it's correct, but what is the rule here? – Michael Login Mar 15 '17 at 19:35
  • Can one be too anal? There is no such thing in English as "the Future Past Perfect". There's future, future perfect, past, and past perfect. (BTW, I am not the downvoter.) – deadrat Mar 15 '17 at 20:33

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