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In the screenplay Harold and Maude, written by American author Colin Higgins, Harold stages a number of pretended suicides in an attempt to get strong emotional responses from his mother.

At a certain point in the story, he places a model of his severed head on a tray under a bell, and intends to have it served to his mother and her guests when they come back from the opera, where they WILL HAVE ATTENDED (?) / HAVE ATTENDED (?) a performance of Salomé, but finally gives up on the idea.

This is not a sentence taken from the novel but a comment on an event in the story. In that comment, should the verb in the relative clause be future perfect or present perfect? I know that future and conditional 'tenses' are replaced with present and past tenses – respectively – in time clauses – and, sometimes, in other subordinate clauses – but the relative clause is not a time clause; it just qualifies the noun 'the opera', which is in a time clause…

To me, another tricky aspect to do with tense is that the sentence should make it clear that the serving of the severed head to his mother and her guests at dinner DID NOT happen, as Harold gave up on the idea, but that his mother and her friends DID go to the opera, DID attend a performance of Salomé, DID come to Harold's house and have dinner there.

If I had used WOULD HAVE ATTENDED (?) / HAD ATTENDED (?), might one not think that these actions did not happen?

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  • "Will have attended" seems right, if you promise to use the construction very rarely. It's correct but precious, when there are simpler ways to convey the same thing. Mar 12 at 21:55
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    Did the performance end before or after he placed the model on the tray? In other words: was the performance already over?
    – alphabet
    Mar 12 at 22:06
  • He places a model of his severed head on a tray under a bell—intending it to be served to his mother and her guests when they come back from an opera performance of Salomé—but finally gives up on the idea. Mar 13 at 2:05
  • @alphabet The performance will take place in the evening and Harold places his severed head on the tray under a bell in the early afternoon.
    – user58319
    Mar 13 at 10:39

1 Answer 1

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he intends to have it served to his mother and her guests when they come back from the opera, where they are attending a performance of Salomé, but finally gives up on the idea.

You are in the present tense (intends, come back, gives up) and so are attending is appropriate.

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  • Your version, while better than either proffered suggestion, remains difficult to understand. I had to read it through several times to work everything out. With a somewhat freer approach to synthesize and rearrange the existing clause structure, it may be easier to reach temporal clarity. For example: He was intending to have it served to his mother and her guests when they returned from attending a performance of Salomé at the opera, but in the end he abandoned the whole idea completely. I also wonder whether the but clause can sustain the shared subject of he from so much earlier.
    – tchrist
    Mar 12 at 23:50
  • I'd agree. With both the answer and the comment. Mar 12 at 23:52
  • @tchrist:"Difficult to understand" is very subjective.I don't find it so. Perhaps it's because I spent a long time in school reading books about books, where the present tense is the coin of the realm.
    – TimR
    Mar 12 at 23:57
  • @TimR The time-reference of 'finally' is unclear. Though it certainly doesn't refer to the Last Trump. Apr 12 at 11:38
  • @EdwinAshworth finally there means at some later time. I'd say it's imprecise, not unclear. Compare The protagonist has his eye on a lucrative sinecure and tries to wangle his way into the position but finally gives up on the idea.
    – TimR
    Apr 12 at 12:18

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