Who ever would have thought I’d become an advocate for a verb tense?
But then, who ever would have thought a verb tense would need advocacy – especially one as basic as the past perfect? (I mean, it’s not as if we’re talking about the subjunctive.)
Some people don’t seem to use the past perfect. Typically, they substitute the simple past tense for it. I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of these people really don’t have a “feel” for how and when to use the past perfect. So I thought I might try offering some guidance to these folks.
So here’s Lesson 1 on how to use the Past Perfect tense:
The past perfect really comes into its own in fiction writing, where it’s necessary whenever the narration (typically in simple past tense) refers to something that happened earlier in time. For example:
He stepped outside into a downpour and realized that he had left his umbrella eight flights up, in his office, and the elevator wasn’t working.
Most people don’t get a lot of practice with the past perfect in their everyday lives, especially if they don’t read a lot of narrative fiction. When we talk about ongoing action in our lives, we use the present tense:
“I have a meeting with my boss at 9:00.” “I like chai tea.” “I need to buy a new cell phone.”
Or possibly the present progressive:
“I am finishing the report.” “I am waiting for the repair man.”
For things we are intending to do, we use the future tense:
“I will stop at the store for some milk on the way home.”
And when we refer to something that happened earlier, we naturally use the past tense:
“I’m going to have to reschedule because I missed the meeting.”
“Don’t talk to me! I’m in a terrible mood. The repairman was two hours late.”
Basically, this is the rule of thumb for using the past perfect:
If you would transition from the present to the past tense at a particular point in everyday conversation, then you should transition from the past to the past perfect at the equivalent point in a past tense narration. Or, to put it more simply: Present is to past as past is to past perfect.
Here are three pairs of examples to illustrate this (present tense narration first, then past tense narration.)
I remember last Friday. I was in a terrible mood because the repairman arrived two hours late, and I snapped at my wife. I’m not going to make the same mistake this time. I’m in a terrible mood, but I’m not going to take it out on her.
He remembered last Friday. He had been in a terrible mood because the repairman had arrived two hours late, and he had snapped at his wife. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake this time. He was in a terrible mood, but he wasn’t going to take it out on her.
I’m standing in front of the gate, hesitating. I meant to go charging in there and give that man a piece of my mind, but now all I can do is think about how that strategy might backfire.
She was standing in front of the gate, hesitating. She had meant to go charging in there and give that man a piece of her mind, but now all she could do was think about how that strategy might backfire.
When I walk down the street these days, I’m not looking at my surroundings. It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when I noticed the trees and flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.
When he walked down the street these days, he wasn’t looking at his surroundings. It hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when he had noticed the trees and flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.
So this might be an approach you could try if you have trouble knowing when to use the past perfect when writing past tense narrative. Try recasting the piece of narrative in the present tense and see where you feel the need to use the past tense. It might not always work well. I had a little trouble with the above examples, finding ones that worked in present tense. It helps to switch to first person, and think of it as a present tense “reflection.” Also it helps to use the present progressive instead of the simple present. Sometimes that feels more natural.
What do you think? Useful or possibly useful? Heard it before? Let me know.