Lessons in the Past Perfect 4: Ditching It?

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.

13 Comments

  • Carrie Rubin

    April 21, 2014 at 6:44 pm Reply

    I would write all those sentences as you did, mainly because they read more smoothly. Peppering the sentence with all those “had”s doesn’t seem necessary for comprehension. In my second novel and my current WIP, however, I will always use the past perfect when indicated, even for flashbacks that are a few paragraphs long. I didn’t do that with my first novel if I made it clear the character was thinking back (as you know 🙂 ), but I’m being more pure about it in my current writing. But again, I wouldn’t include the had additional times in those examples you gave. But I’m not a grammarian. I’m only going by what seems most readable.

    • Carol Wuenschell

      April 22, 2014 at 6:36 pm Reply

      Yeah, I wouldn’t consider myself a grammarian either. I just go by what feels right in my own writing. Usually that’s what’s grammatical, but not always. AS long as you know what you’re doing, or trying to do, it’s probably okay. It’s reassuring to me to know that you’d go the same way on my examples. Two heads are better than one.

  • Audrey Kalman

    April 21, 2014 at 9:33 pm Reply

    I think readability should rule. Sometimes multiple “hads” in a sentence just muck the whole thing up. I certainly don’t think you should be drawn and quartered! Ninety-nine percent of the reading public probably thinks “past perfect” was a time when their abs were tight and their cheekbones sculpted, so they probably won’t notice (except to be confused if you aren’t clear).

    Two rules I occasionally break are: 1) write in complete sentences and 2) avoid starting a sentence with “and.” I do it only for emphasis. And if it fits with the voice of the piece.

    • Carrie Rubin

      April 22, 2014 at 1:55 pm Reply

      “Ninety-nine percent of the reading public probably thinks ‘past perfect’ was a time when their abs were tight and their cheekbones sculpted”—Loved that!!

    • Carol Wuenschell

      April 22, 2014 at 6:43 pm Reply

      I love that about the tight abs! And I agree about readability, with the proviso that things that aren’t clear aren’t “readable” in my book. If the reader has to stop and figure out what was meant, there’s a problem and it’s one every writer should worry about because that pause takes the reader out of the story.

      Incomplete sentences are definitely in the “literary license” category – at least in fiction. And you’ll be happy to know that according to the folks who read style manuals for a living, the idea that sentences shouldn’t start with “and” is a misconception. Some English teachers may have promoted it, but there never really was such a rule, – I guess according to the style manuals.

  • jmmcdowell

    April 23, 2014 at 5:43 pm Reply

    I vote with you and the idea of going with what sounds more readable. And, yes, if there’s room for doubt on interpretation, then the wording isn’t clear and the text should be rewritten.

    I think another consideration for me is the tone of the story and the characters. Are they more “modern” or “informal?” Using simpler tenses will fit better. But a historical novel featuring a” grande dame” or noble? Maybe stricter adherence to rules is the way to go.

    • Carol Wuenschell

      April 24, 2014 at 12:56 pm Reply

      That’s an interesting thought, JM, about matching the formality of the grammar to the content. I think you’re onto something. The formality of grammar is part of what is called “style”. That’s an editor’s usage and not the same as what we generally mean by “style” – an artist’s style, a clothing style – meaning just an individual way of doing something, or a certain set of features. And I got into that because I was going to say that there are different styles of narration, and then had to stop to think what I meant by “style of narration.” I guess I think “style” in the looser sense is individual and that it’s likely to go along with the types of subjects that we individually choose. And I think the formality of grammar used could definitely be part of a person’s individual style of writing.

  • Carol Balawyder

    May 5, 2014 at 8:44 pm Reply

    My feeling is avoid the past perfect, if you can. Of course some situations call for it but I think the simple past flows better. 🙂

  • Carol Balawyder

    May 14, 2014 at 7:43 am Reply

    Hi Carol-

    It seems to me that I read on your blog somewhere that you offer editorial services. Am I right? If so I’d like more information, please. 🙂

    • Carol Wuenschell

      May 15, 2014 at 1:44 pm Reply

      Hi Carol,
      The paid professional editing that I do has so far been confined to scientific/biomedical texts, like journal articles and grant applications. I could probably edit other kinds of things, but I don’t have the specific experience.

      • Carol Balawyder

        June 20, 2014 at 9:24 pm Reply

        Hi Carol,
        It took me a long time to respond, didn’t it? I was waiting for your response in my comments box but never saw one. Anyway, my books are crime novels and not at all scientific or biomedical texts…I found someone who specializes in crime fiction through my writing group.
        Thanks for stopping by my blog. I always like to browse through yours. 🙂

        • Carol Wuenschell

          June 27, 2014 at 6:30 pm Reply

          Sorry for responding in the “wrong” place. (And here I am doing it again.) I’m not very good about figuring out things like how to send someone a message that isn’t part of an ongoing “thread” or comment/discussion. I’m glad you found someone to help with your crime novel. I just got asked to be a beta-reader on a sci-fi ms – more up my alley, and still not editing. It’ll be my first beta read.

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