Had been there, had done that…. In search of the perfect past

Verbs Territory

Verbs Territory (Photo credit: Ecstatic Mark)

This is a post about the past perfect verb tense. Why, you may ask, would I want to write about a thing like that, and what the heck is the past perfect, anyway?

Why is because I’m noticing a disturbing number of would-be writers and self-published writers who evidently don’t know how to use the past perfect.

As for what, well, we all know what past means, so that leaves the perfect part to be explained.

That’s perfect, from the Latin perfectus, past participle of perficere meaning to carry out or perfect.

That’s courtesy of Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. (Yes, that’s a book. Sorry, I didn’t get it off the web, but I’m pretty sure it’s true anyway.) And once you get past the meanings like “expert”, “flawless”, “pure”, and “mature”, you get to meaning number 5, which goes as follows: “of, relating to, or constituting a verb form… …that expresses an action or state completed at the time of speaking or at a time spoken of.”

I translate that as, basically, relating to action completed in the past. (Please don’t be overly impressed: I had to ask a friend who actually has a degree in English to be sure I had the right name for the tense I was talking about.  I know what I do, I just don’t always know what to call it.) The thing to remember about the past perfect tense is that it combines had with the past participle form of a verb, like…

…had been,

…had done,

…had said, thought, walked, talked, hopped, skipped, jumped, or whatever.

And of course, just to make it more confusing, the past participle in English is often – but not always – the same  in spelling and pronunciation as the simple past tense of the verb.  So in some cases you only have to stick “had” in front of the past tense form of the verb, while in other cases you have to actually know what you’re doing.

Examples of the former:

Walked; had walked

Jumped; had jumped

Cried; had cried

Said; had said

Led; had led

Examples of the latter:

Was; had been

Did; had done

Ran; had run

Saw; had seen

Rode; had ridden

Why is this important? Well, it isn’t always. The need for the past perfect rarely comes up in scientific writing, for example. But in story-telling it comes up on a regular basis. Wait a second, you say. If the regular old past tense deals with the past, why isn’t it good enough to just use the past tense in a story for past events? It isn’t, because in stories we normally use the simple past tense for ongoing action.

We do? Yes, we do.

I mean, you can use the present tense for ongoing action in a story – “He goes into the bar. He sits down. He orders a drink.” Some people do that to create a greater sense of immediacy. But it’s much more natural to use the past tense – “He went into the bar. He sat down. He ordered a drink.”

I think this goes back to the origins of human story-telling among those hunter-gatherer ancestors of ours I’m always harping about. When those folks sat around the campfire at the end of the day recounting their experiences, they would naturally be speaking of things that had happened in the past – either the day just past or on some other day in the more distant past. In the present, they were just sitting around the fire telling stories. The action was all in the past.

The problem arises when your story needs to include references to things that happened before the currently ongoing action – whether it’s a moment before, a day or a week before, or perhaps before the story began. If you’re using the simple past for ongoing action, you need some other way to differentiate the past events from the ongoing events in order to avoid a potential crisis in clarity. That’s what the past perfect is for.

Realistically writers don’t only rely on the past perfect for clarity in these cases. The past perfect only tells you the action was completed in the past, after all; it doesn’t tell you how far in the past, or exactly when or over what span of time, and those things are frequently important. So people also use time tags – things like, “yesterday,” “last week,” “the previous time,” or “in all his life up until that moment,” to provide the appropriate precision. Because the time tags do part of the work even without the past perfect tense, I can usually figure out what the writer must have meant and identify the places where he or she should have used the past perfect. In fact, my brain frequently screams “had!” before I even get out of the offending sentence. In other cases I have to back track a sentence or two, and in some cases I don’t even figure out that I misunderstood something until much further on in the story.

Given the way the time tags work, I suppose some people might wonder if the past perfect is really necessary. The problem is that people don’t always realize they should have used a time tag. Also, it’s cumbersome to have to keep repeating the tags in each sentence if the past perfect narrative goes on for two or more sentences, and the reader can’t always tell when to switch back to ongoing action.

Consider the following example (without past perfect):

“He walked into the bar, sat down, and ordered a drink. After a few minutes, his former girlfriend walked in. The same thing happened the week before. Since he didn’t want to make a scene, he gulped his drink and left. Unfortunately, he forgot to pay his bar tab. Resolving not to make the same mistake, he called for the check.”

My brain screams, “The same thing had happened the week before…” because of the time tag. But then I assume that “Since he didn’t want to make a scene…” returns to ongoing action. I don’t discover my mistake until I get to the apparent disconnect of, “Resolving not to make the same mistake…”
I then realize that forgetting to pay the bar tab must be the “mistake” referred to, and therefore must have happened the previous week.

Using the past perfect, the excerpt becomes…

“He walked into the bar, sat down, and ordered a drink. After a few minutes, his former girlfriend walked in. The same thing had happened the week before. Since he hadn’t wanted to make a scene, he had gulped his drink and left. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to pay his bar tab. Resolving not to make the same mistake, he called for the check.”

Adding another time tag, such as, “Since he didn’t want to make a scene on the previous occasion, he gulped his drink and left,” would probably have given me the clue I needed to unscramble the action a bit sooner, but my brain would still have been screaming had, had, had!

To all you would-be writers out there, please don’t make my brain scream. If my brain is screaming, I can’t enjoy your wonderful story. And I have seen some wonderful stories that were ruined for me because my brain was screaming had, had, had! I have yet to read a novel published by a traditional publishing house that made my brain scream this way, and fortunately the verb tense problem is something a good editor can fix.

Why punctuate?


Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day (Photo credit: DavidErickson)

Why should anyone bother to use punctuation? It’s such a hassle. What difference does it make?  Well, compare the following:


“Come and eat people.”


“Come and eat, people.”


One little comma makes the difference between an invitation to cannibalism and a simple call to dinner.


Have you noticed that someone out there has decided voice actors should pause at arbitrary intervals when reading parts in scripted ads that are supposed to represent ordinary people talking about the advantages of the product? I suppose they think it will sound more natural that way; it doesn’t. It sounds wrong, and whenever I hear it, I know the part is scripted.


Ordinary people speaking naturally do not pause at arbitrary intervals. They do, however, pause. They pause for three reasons that I can think of:


  1. To catch their breath
  2. To work out some hitch in their train of thought
  3. To punctuate what they are saying

None of those pauses is random or arbitrary, and a listener can usually tell which one is happening. The first two can potentially interfere with understanding. The third, however, is often essential to it.


Yes, punctuation is a natural animal.


In addition to the words themselves, we use inflection, stress patterns, and pauses of various lengths to convey meaning. The pauses are perhaps less dramatic than the rising inflection of the question or the emphatic stress of the exclamation, but they are no less important. Pauses group words together and separate the groups from other groups based on relationships of meaning.  Most of the time we do this without thinking about it or even being aware we are doing it.  Sometimes we do it very consciously to make sure we are not misunderstood.

Most of the punctuation marks we use in writing ( . , : ; – ) stand for pauses – for modulations in the spacing between words – and they function to clarify meaning. Writing without punctuation is like talking in a monotone with exactly equal spacing between all the words, not pausing between sentences, clauses, other units of thought. Speech like that would sound like a robot (a poorly programmed robot), not like a human being. It would also be hard to follow, hard to understand. It would not, in fact, be at all natural.

So why would anyone want to leave the punctuation out of their writing?

Okay, I understand about text messages and twitter tweets where you only have 140 characters/spaces to work with. Texting on an old-fashioned cell phone like mine, you have to go to some real effort to find and enter those punctuation marks – it’s a hassle.  I understand being in a hurry. I can also understand that some people don’t like all the rules of punctuation. Maybe they can’t remember when they’re supposed to use a comma or a semicolon. Rules may seem arbitrary, fussy, confusing.

So why not just declare our independence and do without punctuation altogether?

Well, ah, because it’s an abandonment of a major tool in the clarity-in-writing arsenal.

It’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t care whether people understand me or not,” or at least, “I don’t care how hard I make my readers work to figure out what I’m trying to say.” I consider that a bit rude. So, while I understand the impulses that lead people in that direction, I personally have no desire to go there. I value clarity and I respect my readers too much to do that.

The truth is that the rules of punctuation, like the rules of grammar, have their limitations. They can get a bit involved, especially if you try to get fancy. Also, the “experts” don’t all agree, and the rules don’t remain constant over time. I think most people get into trouble with punctuation because they focus too much on the rules (which they understandably have trouble remembering) instead of focusing on what punctuation is for. If you keep your sentences fairly simple, remember that a comma is a pause and a period is a full stop, and then just think about what you’re doing when you write, it’s really not so very hard.

For a really clear and very entertaining explanation of punctuation, I highly recommend Lynne Truss’s little book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves.