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« Dieting: Introducing the Ratchet Effect | Main | It's Your Choice! »

The Conditional Perfect

In my Spanish studies I have just started revising that rather obscure tense, the conditional perfect. I was amused to read the following description of this tense in my textbook, the excellent Spanish Verb Tenses by Dorothy Devney Richmond:

Of all the tenses, the conditional perfect holds the dubious honor of being the only one to express no action. It is the favorite tense of excuse makers. The conditional perfect is used to refer to an action that would have taken place, but did not because something got in the way or some specified condition was not met.

In any sentence containing the conditional perfect, there will always be an “if” or a “but” lurking about, either stated or implied. People whose verbiage contains a good deal of conditional perfect sentences most likely are those who don’t get a lot done and have loads of excuses for all they don’t do, for example:

I would have paid you, but I couldn’t find my chequebook

If it weren’t so difficult, I would have baked you a pie

As I read this, I came to the uncomfortable realisation that I am not immune to using the conditional perfect tense myself on occasions. So I took the opportunity to write out a few recent instances:

  • I would have written this newsletter last week, but I was too busy finishing my book
  • If it hadn’t rained so much, I would have cut the grass
  • I would have recorded my teleclass, but I forgot to switch on the tape-recorder
  • If I’d contacted the firm earlier, the confusion over my seminar would have been avoided.

Once I had done this I could see that all these statements occupy a sort of never-never land. They are in fact completely pointless since they describe nothing. The only things that could usefully be stated were:

  • I didn’t write this newsletter last week
  • I didn’t cut the grass
  • I didn’t record the teleclass
  • There was confusion over my seminar

Having stated the facts in this stark way, I then started asking the obvious question: “So what?” The replies to that question usually take a form like this:

  • I didn’t write this newsletter last week, therefore I will schedule a specific period for it this week
  • I didn’t cut the grass, therefore I will check regularly whether the grass is dry enough yet
  • I didn’t record the teleclass, therefore I will see if anyone else did
  • There was confusion over my seminar, therefore I will examine and improve the way I liaise with firms beforehand


You might like to try the exercise of writing down some some examples of how you have used the conditional perfect recently yourself. And then for each occasion strip out the excuse and ask yourself the question “So what?”

(This article was originally published in my newsletter several years ago)

Reader Comments (2)

A novice to your site, but I enjoyed the 'Conditional Perfect' observation by Dorothy and the positive outcomes of 'so what?'
Just a thought, maybe to salvage the maligned 'CP' (is this a 'yes, and ..'?) : if you turn it to the negative form, there is some hope - 'if I hadn't checked your web site, I would not have had this insight.'
March 20, 2007 at 8:02 | Unregistered CommenterAngus Freathy
Or as we used to say in Sunday school:

"I wouldn't have done that, Miss Jones, but the Devil made me do it"
March 20, 2007 at 8:21 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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