Using the Past Perfect tense: Lesson 1

Present perfect and past deformed
Present perfect and past deformed (Photo credit: _Lev_)

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.)

My earlier post titled Had been there, had done that explains the basics of how the past perfect tense is used and how it’s constructed (“had” plus past participle).

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.)

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

9 Comments

  • Carrie Rubin

    May 2, 2013 at 8:07 pm Reply

    I don’t have trouble knowing where to use it, but it’s as we discussed before: I wonder whether I should keep it up in long passages of flashbacks. Many books I’ve read don’t. I think of you every time I use past perfect now, and in my current WIP, I’m keeping the past perfect in, even if the flashback is a few paragraphs long. We’ll see how an editor feels about it when I’m done. 🙂

    • Carol Wuenschell

      May 8, 2013 at 4:04 pm Reply

      There’s a difference between writing without using the past perfect (that is, writing ungrammatically) and writing so as not to need the past perfect. I want to post about this.

      The trouble with switching back to the past tense while still writing about events that occurred before the current action is that your readers may not understand that you didn’t just switch back to the current action. (Besides it being a grammatical issue, of course.)

  • Audrey Kalman

    May 3, 2013 at 10:34 am Reply

    Thank you for your service to this neglected tense. Since a lot of my writing involves playing with time, I do make use of past perfect. The challenge is that it can be really tedious to read long passages with so many “hads.” My current work in progress–perhaps to the chagrin of grammarians such as yourself!–does a lot of intentional playing with tenses as a commentary on the fluidity of time and memory. My editors and readers will tell me if it works or if I have to tone it down! (Sounds as if Carrie and I are both looking to our editors for guidance on this.)

    • Carol Wuenschell

      May 8, 2013 at 4:10 pm Reply

      If you know what you’re doing, you should be okay. You do, of course, have to think about you’re intended audience. People who read literary fiction must have a higher tolerance for experimentation than readers of genre fiction.

  • jmmcdowell

    May 3, 2013 at 6:48 pm Reply

    The key for using the past perfect may depend on the genre. Those that are fast-paced and action-oriented might not use it as much as do others. Be that as it may, your examples comparing it to present and past are wonderfully clear and should help people who have trouble knowing when to use it!

  • Kourtney Heintz

    May 4, 2013 at 9:08 am Reply

    Carol, great summary of how to use the past perfect! Thanks.

    Carrie, I’ve heard at conferences and read in writing books not to use it for the whole flashback because it gets too clunky. I think I read that writers should use it 2-3 times to open the flashback and 2-3 times to come out of the flashback so the reader is signaled that there is a time shift. 🙂

    • Carol Wuenschell

      May 8, 2013 at 4:20 pm Reply

      I’ve heard this too, and I want to post about it. I don’t believe just changing back and forth after a certain number of repetitions is an adequate approach. The trick with a flashback is to literally throw your character (mentally speaking) into the past so that the past becomes his present, for a time. You have to be very explicit about it in your narration and very explicit about his mental return-to-present. Anything else is both ungrammatical and risks confusing your reader.

      • Carol Wuenschell

        May 8, 2013 at 4:23 pm Reply

        Sorry, Kourtney. Didn’t mean to sound so strident. Can you tell I have a pet peeve?

      • Kourtney Heintz

        May 9, 2013 at 7:31 pm Reply

        It’s cool Carol. 🙂 I had to figure out what worked for me in my novel. I have a good amount of flashbacks. I’m not strident with the had because it seemed to not flow well. I had to find ways to make it clear to the reader that the flashback was beginning and ending. My editors helped me a lot with tense. 🙂

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