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.


Lessons in Past Perfect 3: Filling in gaps

Time is an important dimension in any story, and verb tenses are a major tool by which writers assert control over the dimension of time in their storytelling. If you’re a writer, I believe you owe it to yourself to master the verb tenses, regardless of the approach you take to telling your story. It’s part of what it means to be skilled in the craft.

When I see problems with verb tense in the work of aspiring or self-published writers, by far the most frequent issues involve the past perfect tense, specifically the failure to use it when it’s called for. People try to make the simple past do the work of both past and past perfect. The result is a noticeable loss of temporal “depth” and sometimes a loss of clarity. It’s like looking at a photograph where some things are out of focus that aren’t meant to be, making it hard to distinguish the relationships between objects.

Most stories are told in the past tense. They use the simple past for ongoing action, so the past perfect is needed to set off events that occurred prior to the current action. Many people aren’t very comfortable with the past perfect, and if you know you’re one of them, this post is for you.

This time I’d like to explain one very common use for the past perfect in a past tense narrative: filling in gaps created by jumping from one scene to another.

When you’re telling a story—anything other than a very simple one—you can’t show everything that happens because there just isn’t room. You have to decide which actions and events to put into scenes and which to skip over, but skipping creates gaps that can be informational as well as temporal. How do you fill the reader in on events that matter for continuity but are too minor, too brief, too boring, or just too isolated in time to justify fleshing-out in a scene? The past perfect tense is perfect for this, especially if you like to make “clean” jumps between scenes instead of linking them through brief passages of narration.

An example:

Let’s say the last scene involved the hero’s escape from some adversaries while crossing a plain to reach a range of mountains he has to climb. The next scene skips to him being in the mountains, where there are no trees, and its climax will involve fighting off an attacker with the aid of a stick. Since he didn’t have the stick in the previous scene, I want to explain how he acquired it. Here goes:

Aron paused halfway across a steeply sloping field of scree to catch his breath and assess his progress. He judged he was a little more than halfway to the pass. These mountains were too arid to support trees at this elevation and he had a clear view of the plain he had left, spread out below him, and of the ravine-like valley where he had picked up the trail that led to his present location. He glanced at the sun and took a swallow of precious water from his bottle, then started forward again. As he went, he used a stout stick to steady himself on the slippery slope. The stick was about five feet long, light but strong. He had cut it from one of the trees that grew sparsely along the stream in the bottom the valley. He had thought it might prove useful and he was very glad of it now. The trail he was following was sketchy at best. Even when the path wasn’t covered with loose fragments of rock, as it was here, it was steep, rock-strewn, and uneven.

Analysis: Okay, there are four past perfect verbs in the above passage. The first, “had left,” refers to the plain in the previous scene and comes midway through the third sentence after some introductory current action that is in simple past tense. This first use helps link the action to the previous scene as well as filling in an action that was skipped. “Had picked up the trail” places another detail in the gap. Finally, “had cut,” and “had thought” refer directly to the stick. (“Grew,” referring to the trees, doesn’t need to be past perfect because the trees are still growing in the valley. Past perfect is used for events that were completed in the past or conditions that no longer exist, not for ongoing conditions.) “He was very glad” is simple past tense that returns you to the current action. The passage also illustrates how switching back and forth between ongoing action and description of past action can avoid the repetitiousness of too many “hads” in close proximity.

In this particular case, substituting past tense in the first three instances feels “flat” and I know it’s ungrammatical, but I would have little difficulty deducing the meaning. He must have left the plain at some time in the past since he was there in the last scene and isn’t any longer; since he is currently following the trail, he must have picked it up in the past; and since he currently has the stick, he must have cut it in the past. In the last instance, however, “he thought it might prove useful” implies that he is anticipating a possible future use for the stick as he is crossing the slippery scree, rather than having anticipated the present kind of use at the time he cut the stick. The rest of the sentence and the subsequent details might cause one to question this interpretation, but do not clearly resolve the issue.

Another example:

The preceding scene in this case could have been one that established a need to build the “device” mentioned, and the current scene skips to the building of it, leaving a day-long “shopping” expedition undescribed. I could have made a scene out of the shopping, and might have gotten some good mileage out of it, but let’s just say that the need to move the story along more rapidly has left it on the cutting room floor. There are never-the-less some aspects of that trip that are relevant to the plot, specifically the need for secrecy…

Simon waited until the last sounds of movement in the rooms below him ceased before emptying the contents of his pack onto the table in his loft room and sitting down to attempt to assemble the device. The process was going to take some time and he couldn’t afford any interruptions. The assortment of wires, switches, chips, and circuit boards didn’t look like much, but it had taken him the better part of a day in the tech bazaar in Sol City to purchase them. The task could have been accomplished much more quickly if there hadn’t been the need for total secrecy. He had crisscrossed the bazaar repeatedly, putting plenty of both time and distance between each pair of purchases so as not to draw attention to himself, and he was quite sure that he had not been followed home. He smiled with grim satisfaction as he plugged in his soldering iron.

Analysis: I’ll let you hunt down the past perfect verbs. I count four of them. In this case, the repetition of “had” verbs is diluted by a couple of infinitives (“to purchase,” “to draw), a “could have been,” and an “ing” verb (“putting”)—in addition to a simple past tense verb. To my ear, this passage would sound really bad with past tense substituted for past perfect—except for the reference to the need for secrecy. In that one case I think I could have used simple past because the need for secrecy is, in a sense, ongoing. The situation isn’t quite analogous to that of the growing trees in the first example. I come across such ambiguous situations from time to time where something, such as a character’s reaction, could be viewed as both in the past and ongoing. In such cases the writer has latitude. You can decide which aspect of the action you want to emphasize—or which verb just sounds better.

This post has gotten plenty long enough. I would love to hear from you if it was helpful, of course, but also if you have any related suggestions to offer to aspiring writers who are working to improve their craft.

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.

To lay or not to lay… (or, remember the eggs!)

English: Brown chicken eggs

English: Brown chicken eggs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t help it; “Lay Lady Lay” will always sound to me like someone talking to a chicken…

…a rather fancy, well brought up chicken, perhaps, but still a chicken.

That’s Bob Dylan being ungrammatical there with the chicken lady, and of course what I’m alluding to here is the whole “lie” versus “lay” debacle. This burning issue more or less divides the English-speaking population into two groups: those who have difficulty with these two words, and those who don’t. I’m one of the latter. I take no credit for that fact. It’s just that when I was acquiring language, the people I learned it from (my parents) used the two verbs correctly and so I learned to use them correctly. I’m sure this was reinforced by all the reading I did as a child. (I was an incorrigible bookworm.) While it has spared me a lot of grammatical grief over the years in my own writing, it also has the unfortunate consequence that whenever I read something written by someone else who has gotten it wrong, I notice. It hangs me up. It makes me pause and mentally insert the correction. I don’t like having to do that; it takes me out of the story. It spoils my enjoyment. I therefore have a very selfish interest in keeping lie and lay in their place at least in the writing that actually makes it to print.

There are lots of places to get explanations of lie and lay, but of course I just have to offer my two cents’ worth for anyone who may find it helpful.

Lie and lay are two completely different verbs with non-overlapping meanings.

Lie means to assume a recumbent orientation (generally on some more or less horizontal surface).

Lay means to place an object on a horizontal surface (one on which it will not slide or roll away).

Lay requires an object (something to be laid), while lie distinctly does not want one.

Since someone or something tends to end up resting on a horizontal surface in either case, it’s understandable that some confusion might arise. Add to this the fact that the past tense of lie is lay, and confusion becomes really quite forgivable. The most problematic tenses break down like this:

Lie, lay, lain

Lay, laid, laid

(In each case, that’s present tense, past tense, and past participle.)

The problem is simply that many people are mistakenly using lay for both meanings.

If the trend accelerates, we could be looking at language change here, in which English loses one verb (lie) while a second verb (lay) broadens its meaning and become less precise. Would this really be so bad? Well, probably not, since actual ambiguity or confusion of meaning rarely if ever occurs in this case.  I, however, would not be a happy camper. I would feel even more like a dinosaur than I do already, because I will probably keep doing it the way I learned to do it until I write my last word. The other way just feels too wrong.

So, everyone repeat after me:

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

I’ve put “eggs,” the object of lay, in red. If the action is being done to something or someone, then laying is what’s going on. (No sexual innuendo intended.) If the person or animal or thing is doing the action all by itself, it’s lying. So, remember the eggs! If you’re contemplating using some form of the verb “lay,” there had better be an egg-equivalent somewhere in sight.

But be careful; there are nuances. (In these examples, lie is in blue, lay is in green, and the object of lay is in red.)

Inanimate things can lie, or lay. So can things that are not concrete nouns.

The knife had lain so long in the weather that the blade was half rust.

The mist lay like a shroud over the fields. (past tense of lie)

I waited for night to lay its cloak across the land. (present tense of lay)

We never know what lies ahead.

What bounties had providence laid in store for us?

It is entirely possible to lay oneself, or parts of oneself.

Let me lay my head on your shoulder.

Lay your body next to mine. (Compare with: Come and lie down by my side.)

I laid myself down to rest in a little hollow among the leaves.

Now I lay me down to sleep…  (Yes, the object of lay can be an object pronoun: me, us, them, him, her, it, or you).

“Lie” can also mean to be in a place or in a given direction.

The village lies just over yonder.

The road lay straight before them. (past tense)

My heart lies beyond the sea.

Finally, the subject of the sentence can be implied rather than explicitly stated, which can be particularly confusing when “lay” is involved.

Please lie down. (The subject, “you,” is implied here and in the next two examples.)

Lay it down over there.

Lay the timbers straight.

The dead were laid in a common grave. (Someone had to do the laying. We’re not dealing with zombies.)

What about you? Would you be glad to see lie supplanted by lay, or would you become a dinosaur like me if that happened?