Saturday, March 23, 2013

Grammar - What the Heck is Past Perfect?

The rules of grammar can be hard to understand. English grammar especially. But, believe it or not, there is a reason for most of them.

I've noticed a writing trend that bugs me. Bugs me a lot. It's when the author is writing in past tense (you know, the story is being told in the past) and fails to use the past perfect tense when referring to events that happened before the current scene in the story.

Past perfect?  What is that?

In English grammar, "perfect" means past. Don't ask me why. That's just the way it is. So, past perfect means past past. And, believe it or not, it's important for clarification. I hate when I'm reading a book and the author jumps into a scene from an earlier time but fails to inform the reader of the time change by shifting tense.

Here are some examples of past tense:
"The captain’s limp body slid to the deck." (past tense)
"He opened his eyes and saw her watching him." (past tense) 
"He pushed the muzzle against the man's throat." (past tense)
But what if you need to tell about something that happened earlier, perhaps even before the book began? If you just remain in past tense style above, the reader won't realize you've shifted.
"The captain’s limp body had slid to the deck." (past perfect)
 "He'd opened his eyes and had seen her watching him." (past perfect)
"He'd pushed the muzzle against the man's throat." (past perfect)
We do this automatically when we speak to each other. Imagine being interviewed by the police about a break in at your next door neighbor's house.
The cop leaned in. "Your fingerprints are on the frame of the window the burglar entered through. Why were you in the house?"
If you'd been there earlier in the week for a game night, you wouldn't say: "Yeah. I went over there." You'd clarify: "Yeah, I'd gone over to play cards on Tuesday."

With your desire not to be considered a suspect in the break in, you'd make darn sure the officer knew that your visit to the house had happened before the burglary.

So, why are so many writers not using past perfect tense if it's so important for clarification? I've heard this can be explained because so many unedited books are being self-published. That might be some of it, but I've recently read some traditionally published books that were almost devoid of the past perfect tense. And whenever the story jumped to a past past event, it was confusing. And distracting.

So. Word of advice. Understand the past perfect tense. There's lots online to help you. Like here.

Use the past perfect tense. It can be your friend.


  1. I write in present tense now, but my first book was past tense, and I thought I remember reading somewhere that you should use past perfect at the start of a flashback scene to situate the reader, but not through the whole thing because it's too wordy. I wonder what your thought on that is.

  2. That's for long flash backs. If they're only a few paragraphs, you'd stay in past perfect.

  3. I've seen it too, and may have done it a time or two. Will have to remain more aware, I guess I can just talk to myself and make sure it makes sense at my lair haha

  4. I write in present tense but I LOVE learning things. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Oh my goodness you are my hero right now! Seriously I don't know why I couldn't figure that out but I have been struggling with writing a scene like what you described with the Past Perfect.

    Thank you!

  6. Your list of examples is awesome!! It's one of those things I have no idea if I do right or wrong. (I guess if I did it really wrong, either my publisher would've said something or I would've been slayed in a review.)

  7. Pat--yeah. Talk to yourself. ;)

    Kelley Lynn--present tense is hard. Kudos to you.

    Konstanz--How long is the scene? If it's very long, you would use past perfect in the first couple of paragraphs to establish the change in time and then switch to past tense because it's less cumbersome. Then when the flashback is almost done, you switch back to past perfect to remind the reader. That way when you return to the story's real time, the reader knows it.

    Alex--I've read your books and I don't remember there being problems, so I think you're good.

  8. I know we've discussed it before, but I see this all the time--in published books and in books I'm editing. I think out of all the books I've edited, there was one that used the past perfect tense consistently. I think by the time I'm done, though, my authors know the importance of the tense. :D

    Even in a long scene, I would definitely recommend using past perfect tense, because otherwise readers won't know that you haven't switched back. There other ways to do it for a long scene. For example, if I were writing a memory, especially a long one, I might instead use italics for the scene instead of past perfect tense--but ONLY in cases where the character is living in that moment in their head, like in a dream or a flashback. (I had instances of that in Rising 1 and 2. Like Mairwyn's flashbacks--they weren't in past perfect tense; they were in italics, because she was lost in her mind, but I still needed to show indication of past and present. Or reality and unreality.)

    Anyway, I'm glad you wrote this post. :D The more people who understand past perfect tense, the easier it will be for readers to understand what's happening in the story.

  9. Laura--that's good to know because I was told in a writing class to to it the way I described. The key is to recognize when we're writing in such a way that our readers can be confused. We don't want that. So past perfect is the tool.

  10. I always wondered why it was called past perfect. Such a strange way to refer to it. And, yes, I get caught doing this sometimes. Luckily I have smart critique partners who are good at noticing this sort of thing. :)

  11. I make sure to use past perfect when switching to events prior to the scene I'm in. However, like Ilima mentioned, I revert to simple past tense once I've established the flashback, even if it's only a few sentences. However, if you do that it is important to leave good cues to bring the reader back to the current scene!

  12. I did some more research and I see where a lot of people suggest doing it the way you described--enter with past perfect, exit with past perfect, and do simple past in the middle. I've had some authors separate flashbacks (using simple past) with a scene break to indicate that it's a time jump, if it's a really long scene.

    I learned something new today, too! :D

  13. Ooh, and I found this link--this guy suggests for really long flashbacks, you might have to revert to past perfect more often than just the beginning and end:

    (I love grammar. :D I'll stop spamming your blog now, lol.)

  14. L.G.--yes, this discussion has been looking back at some of my own where I might have used past perfect when I should have use simple perfect.

    Botanist--I think that's where our betas are important. We should pay attention to when they say they're confused.

    Laura--makes me wonder how long the flashback should be before we consider switching some simple perfect in the middle or how long one would be where we'd need to slip in some more past perfect to remind the reader that it's a flashback.

  15. Ah, a post just for me. Thanks! I'm working on it.

  16. I'm a big fan of past perfect (hmm, if 'perfect'='past' grammatically, then maybe it could be 'perfect perfect'), but I tend to wander a bit in my writing so it's kind of necessary. For the longer scenes, I start in PP and shift into past in the midst of it, but I will sort of 'dot' PP into it, should it ever seem unclear that I'm still in the past past. When I'm back in the main narrative, I usually try to do something to reground the reader to the current scene.

    See? I told you I wander in my writing!

  17. I swear, I never knew about how many grammatical forms there were until I took Spanish, where I was introduced to things like past perfect, imperfect, conditional, subjunctive...

  18. Far Away--glad it was useful.


    Jess--I know, right? I think one of the best things about studying another language is what it teaches us about our own.

  19. It should always be clear what came before the scene, but you also DO NOT want to overdo the use of "had". It acts as a filter between the narrator & the reader. As long as there is at least one point where the narrator uses "had" to show the event came before, that's all that's really necessary. It's one of those newish rules publishers prefer to help keep the reader in the moment, even if the event comes before the scene.

  20. Nancy--as long as it's clear to the reader, I agree. In the books I spoke of in the post, it was not.

  21. Great advice and clarification. I think sometimes we concentrate on other aspects of the ever-changing publishing world and forget about some of the details. Grammar, whether we like it or not, is important to our storytelling. Thanks for the reminder.

  22. Great advice! Thank you from one who really needed this.

  23. I should have known this but didn't :) Thanks.

  24. I agree. I hate being confused when I read flashbacks. And sometimes the confusion comes not because I can't tell where the flashback starts, but because I can't tell where it ends.

  25. My college instructors insisted that we should all write the way we speak. Speaking takes talent too!

  26. I couldn't agree with you more! It's something I make sure to do properly if I have to tell something that happened before the story's present, even if I'm already writing in past tense. It's something I've had to pick people up on before, if they've asked me to edit their work, and I never know exactly how to explain to them WHY they need to add the word 'had' to the sentence, but this is good and helpful so thank you!

  27. Great post. There are so many verb tenses in English, it boggles the mind!

  28. This is a really great post! Thanks for the advice.

  29. I think I've learned more from you grammar posts than I did from 18 years of school. Probably because you give such great and easy to understand examples.

    Have I been able to implement it in my writing? Probably not 100% but I'm picking up on things I didn't before.

    Thanks for the lesson, Donna :)


  30. Thank you for such a clear explanation, Donna, I'm probably a serial offender, but know to keep an eye out now.


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