Friday, October 21, 2016

What is Past Perfect Tense?

The rules of grammar can be hard to understand. English grammar especially. But, believe it or not, there is a reason for most of them.

I've noticed a writing trend that bugs me. Bugs me a lot. It's when the author is writing in past tense (you know, the story is being told in the past) and fails to use the past perfect tense when referring to events that happened before the current scene in the story.

Past perfect?  What is that?

In English grammar, "perfect" means past. Don't ask me why. That's just the way it is. So, past perfect means past past. And, believe it or not, it's important for clarification. I hate when I'm reading a book and the author jumps into a scene from an earlier time but fails to inform the reader of the time change by shifting tense.

Here are some examples of past tense:
"The captain’s limp body slid to the deck." (past tense)
"He opened his eyes and saw her watching him." (past tense) 
"He pushed the muzzle against the man's throat." (past tense)
But what if you need to tell about something that happened earlier, perhaps even before the book began? If you just remain in past tense style above, the reader won't realize you've shifted.
"The captain’s limp body had slid to the deck." (past perfect)
 "He'd opened his eyes and had seen her watching him." (past perfect)
"He'd pushed the muzzle against the man's throat." (past perfect)
We do this automatically when we speak to each other. Imagine being interviewed by the police about a break in at your next door neighbor's house.
The cop leaned in. "Your fingerprints are on the frame of the window the burglar entered through. Why were you in the house?"
If you'd been there earlier in the week for a game night, you wouldn't say: "Yeah. I went over there." You'd clarify: "Yeah, I'd gone over to play cards on Tuesday."

With your desire not to be considered a suspect in the break in, you'd make darn sure the officer knew that your visit to the house had happened before the burglary.

So, why are so many writers not using past perfect tense if it's so important for clarification? I've heard this can be explained because so many unedited books are being self-published. That might be some of it, but I've recently read some traditionally published books that were almost devoid of the past perfect tense. And whenever the story jumped to a past past event, it was confusing. And distracting.

So. Word of advice. Understand the past perfect tense. There's lots online to help you. Like here.

Use the past perfect tense. It can be your friend.


Betsy said...

I'd heard that if you're jumping to something that happened in the past/flashback, you can use "had" in the first few sentences, and the rest is assumed that you are still in that time frame. Is this what you've found?

Kaye P. Clark said...

I've heard the same advice, Betsy. You don't need to keep inserting "had" throughout the piece. The reader understands it all took place in the past.