1. Youngsquire
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    Youngsquire New Member

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    Grammar Past Perfect Tense

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Youngsquire, Jan 4, 2015.

    When writing a story in the past tense, do you always use past perfect tense when talking about an action that happened before the story?

    In other words, do you use the word "had" before every verb that happened before the story took place in the past?

    Here's an excerpt from the Nicholas Sparks Novel "Safe Haven": (The past perfect tenses are in bold.)

    He talked about growing up in Spokane and the long, lazy weekends he spent riding bikes alone the Centennial Trail with friends; he told her that once he discovered swimming, it quickly became an obsession. He swam four or five hours a day and had Olympic dreams, but a torn rotator cuff in his sophomore year of college put an end to those. He told her about the fraternity parties he’d attended and the friends he’d made in college, and admitted that nearly all of those friendships had slowly but surely dried away.
    But, instead, shouldn't it read like this?: (The past perfect tenses are in bold.)

    He talked about growing up in Spokane and the long, lazy weekends he had spent riding bikes alone the Centennial Trail with friends; he told her that once he had discovered swimming, it had quickly become an obsession. He had swam four or five hours a day and had Olympic dreams, but a torn rotator cuff in his sophomore year of college had put an end to those. He told her about the fraternity parties he’d attended and the friends he’d made in college, and admitted that nearly all of those friendships had slowly but surely dried away.​

    Why did the writer, Nicholas Sparks, choose to only ad the past perfect tense in certain places? And why did he choose only those places?
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Because past perfect is cumbersome both to read and to write, and is only needed when you need to establish the relative order of occurrence of two past events.

    By the way, "had Olympic dreams" is simple past tense. Past perfect would be "had had Olympic dreams".
     
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  3. lustrousonion
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    lustrousonion Contributing Member

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    @Cogito gives a great answer. Not that it changes the answer to your question, but I'd also add that the past participle of swim is swum.
     
  4. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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  5. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I've found, when dealing with this issue in my own writing, that he'd rather than he had seems to fly past more easily. You can make judicious use of both.

    When you're describing a sequence of events that happened in the past, you can usually get away with salting 'he'd' or 'he had' in a few places, and the story stays on track. Your first Nicolas Sparks example reads perfectly. At no point are you, the reader, confused as to when the occurrences happened. It's a trick to learn how to work this, but salting lightly is preferable to sticking blindly to 'he had' or 'he'd' in every instance. If you stick to the 'rules' you'll end up with very clunky prose.
     
  6. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    perfect writing does not equate to perfect reading
     
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  7. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I actually have a similar issue myself - my grammar is in general in good working order, but when it comes to perfect tenses, I'm sometimes a little unsure and I've been told once or twice when I've used past tense when it really should've been past perfect. *keeps watch over the thread for any insights*
     
  8. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've seen authors use past perfect to introduce the past-past events, and then, once the time is established, switch to simple past.

    My version is kind of rough, but the general idea would be:

    Benjamin had loved her since they were children. Since the first time he'd seen her, he supposed.
    She'd been wandering along the road, her long golden hair blowing in the wind, and she'd been shooting her BB gun at anything that moved.
    A leaf, waving gently in the breeze, developed a tidy hole near its middle. A small bird flapped twice and then plummeted to the ground where it lay, silent and unmoving. When a squirrel lost its tail in the middle of a leap from one branch to another, Benjamin lost his heart.

    So, whatever... you start with the past perfect to show that this happened before the regular past, but then once you've set that up you shift back to simple past to avoid the nuisance of past perfect.
     
  9. lustrousonion
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    lustrousonion Contributing Member

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    The past perfect is also used in fiction set in the past like the present perfect tense. It tells us something started in the past and is still going on. "Benjamin had loved her since they were children. (And still does.)"

    I say: "We are best friends. I've known her since kindergarten."
    My character narrates: "We were best friends. I'd known her since kindergarten."
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    This is an example of what I was saying. The past perfect (in blue) is used because it is relative to the part in red. It doesn't explicitly mean the love continued to the present, but assuming the overall narrative is in past tense, it would be reasonable to infer that the love might continue to the story time.

    So, in past tense narration, the past perfect is vague about whether the action continues to the story time "present" unless you make it clear by other means. one such means is through dialogue or literal thought using present perfect:

     
  11. whimsy
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    whimsy New Member

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    I love this thread. I find myself editing to clarify tense constantly, and this is so very helpful.
     
  12. lustrousonion
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    lustrousonion Contributing Member

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    Yes, agree with you there. It's a problem with taking steps back -- there's only so far back you can go.
     

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