The “Perfect” in “Past Perfect” Does Not Refer To How You’ve Been Using It.

Hello, grammar kittens.

I’d like to start off our inaugural post with something that worries my editorial sensibilities deeply: verb tense abuse.

One verb tense in particular. One that drives me insane both when it is used incorrectly and when it’s used correctly but too much:

Past perfect.

cat

But it’s perfect! How can it be wrong for any situation?

And yet it usually is.

Let’s say you’re writing a story in simple past tense. The cats walked down the street, you might write. Walked is in past tense. You go on:

The white cat said, “Something strange happened to me yesterday.”

“What was it?” asked the black cat.

All of this is fine. Your editor is pleased that you have mastered dialogue tags. But then:

“Well,” said the white cat, “I had been walking down the street, just like we are now, and a big, ugly dog had leapt out of a doorway at me. I had puffed up to show it I was a mightier creature, but it had made a noise at me. Then the strange thing had happened: it had flapped its wings at me.”

Now your editor is getting emotional in the margins. She may raise any number of issues, among them:

  • reading a long passage in past perfect like wading through cold molasses*
  • this distances the reader from the action
  • no one talks this way, not even talking cats

also a cat

But wait. The narration is in past tense. The white cat is describing something that happened before that. Shouldn’t it be in past perfect?

While I admire your efforts at logic, no. If we imagine the cat to be a living, breathing (talking) creature, it is thinking present tense. It would say, I am walking down the street. And it would say, Yesterday I walked down the street. Odds are, simple past tense will serve you best. The only time you’d say, I had walked down the street would be to make a comparison (I had walked down the street, but now I prefer to skip) or to differentiate between two distinct periods of time (I had walked down the street weeks earlier, but only yesterday was there a dog).

Which brings me to the next problem:

The dog had actually been a bird, the black cat had said. The white cat’s reference to wings had told the black cat that it had not been a dog. The reference to strange noises, which the white cat had gone on to describe as “chirping,” had confirmed this suspicion.

Overuse past perfect obscures the sequence of events. The black cat’s “had said” takes place a day later than “the dog had been a bird,” but you can’t tell that from the verb tense.

As for the “like wading through cold molasses” part, if you find that you have no choice but to write a long anecdote into your story about events which took place long ago–let’s say you’re being held at gunpoint–you can introduce the anecdote with some past perfect and then fade gently into simple past tense. Do it skillfully enough and the reader will never know and your editor will never have to shank you.**

 

*Whether or not this passage would be readable in any other tense is beyond the scope of this post.

**Gently and with love.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Things happen chronologically and we talk about them sometimes. « The Grammar Cat
  2. Trackback: Let Sleeping Cats Lie | The Grammar Cat

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