Stylistic Question

OK, so please look at the following sentence: “He wanted to call his daughter but the phone call would have had to have been monitored.”

It sounds very clunky to me but what do you, the native speakers, think? Is “have been” redundant here if we already used “would have had”? Does it convey the sense of the plusquamperfect? Like the call would be monitored before he conceived the desire to make it? Does the whole thing sound right?

What would you use, “would have had to have been” or “would have had to be”?

25 thoughts on “Stylistic Question

  1. That sentence is too awkward, redundant and clunky.

    How about this?

    “He wanted to call his daughter but the phone call would be monitored.”

    “He wanted to call his daughter but he knew the phone call would be monitored.”


    1. This sounds much better!

      By the way, the guy I quoted is a Pulitzer Prize winner. And this is just one of many weird verbal constructions he has produced. I’m starting to wonder about the criteria for awarding this prize.


  2. I’m with Roberto. I had to read it a few time and am still unsure what the gist is. So is the implication that he didn’t call because he wanted to avoid the monitoring? If so, it’s unclear. I like Roberto;s second suggestion. I would suggest even a bit more clarity perhaps:

    “He wanted to call his daughter but didn’t because he knew the phone call would be monitored.”


      1. Seems to imply necessity: “would have” is conditional, and “had to have been” is not a tense, but implies the necessity of the enforcement of a law to monitor the phone at that time, in the past.


  3. It depends on the context. As stated, it means that monitoring would have been required. Thus, for example, if no one was available to do the monitoring, he would have been unable to make the call. If it were shortened to “would be monitored” then it implies that the monitoring is automatic and could not, in itself, have prevented the call from occurring.

    The complex constructions of English verbs are, in my opinion, part of what makes the language so profoundly beautiful. As one example, unfortunately, many people ignore the profoundly subtle differences between “He may have called” and “He might have called.”

    I have always suspected that no other languages have the subtle variation of meanings afforded by the many forms of English verb constructions.


    1. Since it now seems acceptable to write “he might of done” instead of “he might have done”, I agree that the subtle variations are being lost.

      Just yesterday I saw “might of done ” used twice on a blog of somebody who is a graduate student. 😦


      1. Ouch, this hurts my eyes! “He might of done” is a totally incorrect misinterpretation of the contraction “He might’ve done,” apparently used because the “of” and “‘ve” sound the same when spoken. But it’s a grammatical error, pure and simple!


      2. I had that kind of problem when I was learning to read. I would hear my mother say what sounded like “might of done,” but she was actually saying “might ‘ave done.” Fortunately, she made sure I knew the difference.
        Written versus spoken language is confusing to those who aren’t used to it.


      3. As a UK English speaker, I would argue that “might of done” is not appropriate for formal writing in any academic context, but is entirely acceptable in spoken form as part of some regional dialects.

        Similarly, your ugly sentence would be a lot less clunky with the verbal ellisions of some dialects: β€œHe wanted to call his daughter but the phone call would’ve ha’t’ve been monitored.”


  4. It seems to me that the use of ” to have been monitored” implies that such phone interaction had been monitored in the past (for whatever reason) and it should be maintained that way. Instead, the use of “to be monitored” implies a present factual realization that the phone call needed to be monitored. If I translate the original sentence into a roman language, it doen’t sound clunky or strange to me. It is suggestive of a very specific situation going on.


      1. “Would have had to have been” here means ‘would have been required to have been”. In other words, the call could not have taken place at all if it were not monitored. This meaning of ‘had to’ or ‘have to’ is pervasive.


  5. “not something that would happen if he were to call now”.
    Clarissa, I am not sure of that without reading more of that text.


  6. β€œHe wanted to call his daughter but the phone call would have had to have been monitored.”

    Doesn’t sound terrible to me as an example of spontaneous non-published writing. That is, it’s awkward but in the way that native speech in any language often is.

    For publication “β€œHe wanted to call his daughter but the phone call would have to be monitored.” sounds better though the meaning is slightly changed. In the original it’s presupposed that he didn’t call his daughter while in my re-write it’s ambiguous.


    IME English speakers don’t call it that, but rather say ‘past perfect’. Next you’ll be writing about he preterite or conjunctive in English : )


    1. This is a quote from a work of literature, so definitely not a spontaneous oral expression. It just sounds so tortured and out of tune with the general tone of the text.


  7. When googling the phrase, I have discovered some discussion about it. I thought the following example (pasted below) was interesting and thinking about it, I can see why the speaker used that construction. I still think that the example you provided can be clarified but in this example, I think it’s hard to think of an alternative:


  8. i believe it is called “future in the past” tense. there also exists a “past in the future” tense – as in “by next monday afternoon, i shall have completed by PhD defense”


  9. I love the original. Leave it that way! πŸ˜€
    Nothing is more funny than confusing people with clunky sentences!


    1. Part of what makes it clunky is the non-use of contractions, if you add the contractions it sounds much more natural:

      “He wanted to call his daughter but the phone call would’ve had to’ve* been monitored.”

      *pronounced ‘to of’ with stress on ‘to’

      or even

      “He wanned t’call his daughter but the phone call woulda had to-a* been monitored.”

      *pronounced ‘two a’ with stress on ‘two’.


  10. It’s fine. Needs a comma before “but” and stress, if spoken, on the “had.” It’s a future conditional in the past, or something like that.
    I see that others have figured it out.


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