19 June 2007

Past perfect

Past perfect is one of those difficult tenses. Sorry to bore you all, but today I'm in the mood for a grammar rant. (Wearing the grammar teacher and editor hats today.) I love tenses. I love all their different names and the way they interconnect, and how you use them differently. For the uninitiated, past perfect is a tense formed with "had" + past participle of a verb, eg had walked, had danced, had brought, had eaten, had ridden etc.

Past perfect is used for actions completed in the past before another action in the past. It's like a second step back in time. For example, if I'm writing in present tense and want to indicate a past event, I use simple past: Today I go to the milk bar; yesterday I went to the bakery. But if I'm writing in past tense, then I can't just use simple past, and need to show another step backwards: Yesterday I went to the milk bar; the day before I had gone to the bakery. Should be simple, right?

I remember someone saying to me when I first started taking writing seriously that you should never use "had had", that the second had was never needed. I know now that this was a stupid piece of advice. Even then it felt wrong, and so when I wrote my fledgling stories I would contract the first one and use I'd or she'd or whatever, just because I could tell instinctively that I really did need both verbs, but people tended to let me keep the two verbs. Perhaps where this advice stemmed from -- or at least should have stemmed from -- is that when you segue into past perfect, which indicates a second step back in time, you only have to use the had the first one or two times and then can slip into simple past tense. Simple past is much more direct. Too many "hads" bog down a sentence. Pace stagnates when it should be racing. Of course the trick is to signal clearly to the reader when you are returning to the "now" of the story, whether it's in present or past tense.

But the problem I see often in student work is use of past perfect when simple past will do. This is usually because a student is writing in present tense and so should use simple past for past events, but I think they're so used to writing in past tense that they take that second step backwards when only one is necessary. They'll also use past perfect when they really want present perfect (have gone, have fished, have eaten, have drunk). Obviously for some it's tricky stuff. I'm lucky because it's always come naturally to me. Sometimes I think it only affects them on paper -- that they can handle tenses properly in speech, but this isn't always the case. My tip, as with any problem when writing, to improve your tenses? Easy: read lots. Read widely. And pay attention to what the author is doing.


Brad said...

Good post, just thought I should let you know. And I have a question, if you are using past perfect in fiction, say your story is in past tense and your narrator is relating something that happened in the past that goes on for a page or more, are you saying it is okay to drop all the "had"s when you feel you've established that we are now in the past, or would you continue to use them?

Tracey said...

Hi, Brad,

Thanks for your comments!

Re your question -- yes, you can drop the hads (unless there's a further step back within the flashback). Once you've established that you have moved into the flashback, you just continue to tell the story as it is unfolding (ie in past tense if that's what you're writing in). The important thing, though, is to signal to the reader clearly when you move back into the "now" of the story -- that you keep the transitions, the movement in and out of the flashback clear.

Hope that's helpful!

Mel said...

I am so psyched I came upon your blog today! I wrote a literary fiction novel, and my editor changed my flashbacks (backstory/memories) to past perfect - with "had" in almost every sentence. It drives me crazy. But it appears that is not necessary now.

However, if they step back further, then do I keep the "had" in every sentence and then take another step back, or can I establish a step back and then re-establish another step back (writing all in between in past tense)?

Thank you so much!!

A community for women

Tracey said...

Mel, you're quite correct -- by the sounds of things, probably many of those "hads" wouldn't have been necessary to establish the tense, but it may be that your editor was trying to achieve a particular rhythm, or some other effect. I can't really say.

Grammatically, all the hads are correct, but usually they're not necessary. Simple past tense (we went) is more direct than past perfect (we had gone) -- the sentences are crisper, cleaner and flow better. But all those hads can have an almost hypnotic effect.

Still, in the future, you could always speak to your editor if you're really unhappy about a change. Don't argue every little thing -- choose the things that are important to you and make your case in a polite manner. Or ask him or her to justify why they've made a particular change. Again, not on every point -- you do have to trust in their professionalism! But, ultimately, it's your book, and you have to be happy with it too.

If you're already in the flashback and have moved from past perfect back to simple past, and want to step back further, you would just have to set up that movement with another set of hads, but then could move back into the simple past tense again. However, you do need to consider that too many movements may confuse your readers. Even a simple flashback can confuse readers if it's not telegraphed clearly, and the longer it goes on the less tenuous becomes their hold on where the "real" story is at. (Perhaps this was why your editor put all those hads in -- to remind readers of where they were. Or rather "when" they were.) If the flashback goes on for pages, the reader might forget that they're reading a flashback and then become disorientated when they are propelled back into the present time. Just something else to think about!

Hope that's all helpful.


Mel said...

Thank you, Tracey! I asked her about it tonight and she said it bothers her as a reader to see things written incorrectly. But I am going to change them back to my original - with the first few sentences using "had" and the rest being simple past tense. It does read easier that way.

But..I'm taking your comment on the length of the flashback into consideration, too. I have a particularly long flashback that needs to be taken apart and moved around a bit.

Thank you again - I'll bookmark your site :-) Also, if you'd like to swap reciprocal links, check out my site: www.thewomensnest.com - I run a community for women, and many of them are aspiring writers :-) We don't allow marketing in the forums, but putting your link in Links We Like would help. Feel free to use my Contact Us form to contact me directly.

Thanks again!

Tracey said...

Hi, Mel,

I'm glad you got that sorted with her, and that you're happy with the outcome. I'm sure a lot of readers may have been bogged down by all those "hads" -- you do have to consider the effect on them too.

I'm happy to swap reciprocal links! I'll put your site on my blogroll now. (Sorry, I didn't respond earlier. I did see your comment, but haven't got to the blog because I've been busy marking and teaching!)


Anonymous said...

Great post. I'm writing a short story in the past tense, but I'm having a tense question that I feel like a knucklehead about. In a paragraph, I use the past perfect to est. that I'm making a 2nd step back in time, and then I drop the "hads" and go back into simple past tense, just to smooth out my writing. So I end my paragraph saying something like "Since this thing happened, three guys have already died." Is it correct to use the present perfect this way? Thanks for your reply.

Tracey said...

Thanks, Anon, for your comment. This whole moving in and out of flashbacks is tricky, isn't it?

I suspect you'd be better with past perfect there. Present perfect would fit better if your story were in present tense, but because you're going to be continuing on with a scene that is in the past, and their deaths are still further back from that point, you should use past perfect, and then continue with your scene in the "now" of the story in simple past tense.

You're obviously a bit unsure of what you've done, so try the past perfect and see how that works!

Katherine said...

Hi Tracey
Just wanted to thank you for this article, it was exactly what I was looking for, and oh, I've been looking.
I see authors drop the "had" all the time in extended flashbacks, but was uncertain how they had gained permission to do so. Was there some governing body I could apply to for a permit?

Your straightforward explanation has been very helpful and each time I divest myself of an unnecessary "had" I shall think of you fondly. Thanks again.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Just came across this article and loved it. I hope you don't mind, but we are going to include it in our Best Articles This Week for Writers post on 6/4.

You can see it at:

Thanks so much!

klutzontoast said...

Hi Tracey

I second Katherine's comment. It is surprisingly difficult to find the rule of thumb for this, and after looking in published books, I was getting more and more confused. What was the rule they were following?

Now I know. Thank you!

Hạ Thụy said...

Dear Tracey, this is a very good post. I have a question about using this tense. I have read a novel which in it the author use the past perfect in this sentence: "They had kept in touch after Legler left". The action "keep in touch" happened after "Legler left" and still not complete. Could you please explain for me.I am a little confused. Thank you.

Tracey said...

Hmm, that's a good question, Ha Thuy. I would normally have written this sentence the other way around: "They kept in touch after Legler had left" because, as you correctly point out, the leaving happened before the keeping in touch.

Without the full context, it's difficult to give a definitive answer, but it's possible if this were inside a flashback (that has been set up in the beginning with the past perfect) that the author is now signalling an end to the flashback and a movement back into the "now" of the novel, even if this "now" is in past tense. In other words, the "had" that goes with the keeping in touch is correct because it denotes a backwards movement from the narrative, as well, and the author is now reminding us of this as he or she wants to continue on with the narrative. It then becomes difficult to denote this third movement backwards (the leaving) so we have the simple past. Is that confusing?

If that isn't the case, it could also be a mistake...

Hạ Thụy said...

Dear Tracy, thank you for answering my question. After reviewing your answer several times,now I can understand how to use this tense in writing for this context (a flashback). This is new for me and interesting. There is no mistake. I read this sentence in the novel "Reasonable Doubt", author Phillip Friedman,page 4.I appreciate if you post more grammar lessons, especially how to use Inversion in wrting for making sense.Thank you.

Jessa said...

The question of how to successfully compose a flashback sequence in a story written in the past tense has caused me many sleepless nights. You have no idea how much I appreciate this post. Ironically enough, after reading this I went back to edit several flashback sequences in a current work-in-progress and found that I had already written them this way. I just wanted to say thanks for giving me "permission" to keep them in their current state and putting my fears to rest!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I have been struggling with trying to figure out how to use the past perfect tense in my short stories without it affecting the flow. Your blog was a Godsend,.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, when the "step backward in time" is already indicated by the wording, I'll keep things in simple past tense. Using your example:

"Yesterday I went to the milk bar; the day before I went to the bakery."

Since we've established the time-shift with "the day before" I think this is acceptable.