Future Perfect, Past Unreal Conditional

In the future, everything will be perfect, right? That’s not how the future perfect works. Yesterday, I had a difficult time trying to explain this verb tense construction to my students at the language school. All I knew was that I would liked to have liked to have explained this without a hitch.

It’s a verb tense that’s used all the time by native speakers of English. There’s a goal, an expectation, some kind of deadline to meet implied. Here is the basic construction:

Subject + will + have + past participle
Example: Tomorrow, I will have completed all my paperwork.

Subject + be (am/is/are) + going to + have + past participle
Example: I am going to be finished with my project tomorrow.

Several years ago, I lived with someone who lived in the future tense. This guy, whom I’ll call Hartwig, never quite did anything in the present tense to accomplish the things he dreamt that he would have done at some point in the future. Now, it is past unreal conditional, most likely something he rarely or never accomplished. At the time when he talked about becoming a singer-songwriter, he was talking about something in the future, something he hoped to accomplish.

In the simple past, Hartwig talked about how he could write songs and how he could really work in a hook. Sheryl Crow, the Carpenters, and few others inspired him in this craft and he was talented, dammit! His only problem was that people held him back: his evil stepmother, his older brother, and several of his other relatives who blend together into composite villains. He left all these people behind in St. Louis, driving out to the promised land of Southern California, and he still felt these people held him back. Instead of sitting down with a tape recorder and some musical instruments, Hartwig was content to bitch and moan about these people. He talked about how he will be a famous person and they’ll all be sorry and be sweeteningly ingratiating to him.

Not while he sat on his duff and did nothing, they wouldn’t.

Hartwig’s problem was that he didn’t want to be a singer-songwriter. He wanted to have been a singer-songwriter. He wanted to have been famous. He wanted to have been a star and receive the adoration he craved from the family members who clearly didn’t love him back. He didn’t want to go through the process of writing songs, finding that bulk of them may not be that good or work at all, and then find some that might. This would mean that he’d have to fine tune them, to get them to play just right. That would take actual work.

The time he spent looking at hanging out at bars, looking at porn on my computer, and moaning about the people who held him back could have been spent actually working on songs. He did go out to karaoke bars and sang, hoping people would tell him that he was great. He was often surprised that they didn’t. No one at any bar likes those “pro” types when it comes to karaoke. A year so so after I kicked him out, American Idol took off. I don’t know if he ever auditioned, but it’s his type of show. I would have tuned in if he had been one of the contestants, just for the chance to hear Simon tell Hartwig that he was awful. Hartwig, it’s not too late, especially if the prematurely gray Taylor Hicks got a record deal out of it.

When I was in my late teens, early 20’s, I outlined goals for myself, some of them too fantastic, and some just a little out of reach. Before I got into the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, I played out the future in my daydreams: After I get out of fashion school, I will become a famous artist and I will have done lots of fantastic work before I turned 30. And, in my mental future perfect universe, I will have lived in San Francisco and/or New York City before I turned 30. When my professional goals turned away from the arts, I had some other future perfect goals such as, After the French degree is finished, I will have become a literary translator. I entertained a lot of these goal possibilities in my mind, most of it never realized. I have to admit I still do, though I try to keep it to myself and from interfering with my present reality.

When I was in my late 20’s, my mindset turned to the past unreal conditional. I bemoaned that I hadn’t done or become all the things I had hoped to. I hadn’t yet finished the BA degree at the time and I felt that I should have earned that PhD. I should have left the supermarket and found a job better suited to my intellect and talents. If I had only finished that degree at FIDM and so on. It got to a point where I friend of mine had to do an impromptu intervention when I got caught up in my self-pitying when we were out for coffee. He sharply told me that he thought I was a big baby and that I didn’t stop to think that other people had some real problems. While I didn’t care for what he said, it made think long and hard about whining over what could have been.

I have to admit I am still addicted to thinking in terms of the future perfect. There are certain things I will like to have accomplished in X amount of time. I wish I can say that I have learned to to live in the present and to work towards future goals. Having things done in the past perfect would be nice. Instead, I must live in the present progressive, also known as present continuous. I am learning how to live in the present and to work towards my goals.

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