I have a confession to make. There are situations where the rules seem to call for the past perfect but I actually find that I substitute the simple past and it doesn’t feel wrong to me. I know; shocking, isn’t it? I guess Miss Past Perfect (me) isn’t quite so perfect.
I got to wondering whether this was a deficiency in my usually natural ability to “feel” the need for past perfect, or whether these are places where other grammatically knowledgeable writers would make the same call. Was there a pattern? I set out to analyze some of these cases.
Some of them turned out to be examples of a situation I’ve already claimed was legitimate, though I’m not sure it is.
In these cases, I wasn’t really using the simple past tense, I was using the past participle without the helping verb “had.” The simple past and the past participle are identical for many English verbs, so it isn’t always obvious what’s going on in these cases. Basically, they occur when a sentence has two or more parallel verbs all in past perfect. It only feels necessary to me to use the helping verb once – with the first past participle. The others feel okay to me without it, like this:
She had gone to the window, looked outside, and seen no one.
Note that “looked” and “seen” are both past participles here, although “looked” is identical to the simple past tense of “look.” Would anyone really feel it necessary to write “had gone,” “had looked,” and “had seen” in this case? Is what I do legitimate, or not?
And what about this:
He had been in a terrible mood because the repairman arrived two hours late.
I used that example in an earlier post, but wrote “had arrived” in order to make a point, even though I didn’t feel the “had” was really necessary. This is a different situation. “Arrived,” here, is not a past participle.
Or, another example, also a variant on one I used in a previous post:
He had finished it just two days before he died.
I wrote, “just two days before his death,” in the post to avoid the issue, but I like the ring of the above version better – and also better than “He had finished it just two days before he had died.” And once again, I’m not using “died” as a past participle. I might say “he had finished it two days before he went,” but never “he had finished it two days before he gone.”
What’s going on with these last two cases? All I can say in my defense is that both examples involve the second verb in a sentence where the first verb has clearly placed the action in the past relative to the ongoing action by use of the past perfect. In both cases there is no reasonable ambiguity. The word “because” in the first instance makes it impossible to imagine that the repairman being late could be present action, since it was the cause of a past situation (the character’s terrible mood). The second example may not be quite so clear-cut, but for me it would take a break in the sentence to wrench that second verb into the ongoing action – like this:
He had finished it just two days before. At a little before noon, the old man died.
And finally, here’s another example from a previous post. This is how I originally wrote it:
It hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when he had noticed the trees and the flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.
The truth is, though, I haven’t really got a problem with switching the first verb in the second sentence to simple past:
It hadn’t always been that way. There was a time when he had noticed the trees and the flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.
What can I say? There’s a past perfect verb in that second sentence that anchors the sentence in time. The past perfect verb in the preceding sentence reinforces that and leads the reader to anticipate some further explanation of the past situation. So, again, I don’t think there’s any risk of ambiguity. (I might switch the second verb in that sentence instead, but not both at once.)
Am I just being hypocritical to allow myself these reversions to the simple past while demanding that the past perfect be used to anchor both sentences? You can tell me what you think, but for me, switching that entire last passage to simple past suggests a different meaning:
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when he noticed the trees and the flower gardens, the picket fences, even the cracks in the sidewalk.
Now I think it’s possible that the “time when” referred to might be every Saturday afternoon when he walks to the park, rather than some earlier period of his life.
So what do you think? Should I be hung, drawn, and quartered? What would you do in these instances? Do you have other situations where you break the rules and feel okay about it? If so, tell me why.