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  1. #1
    Lindi Hobbs

    The Death of Past Perfect?

    Well, I ran a search on "past perfect" on this list.

    I figured this was a tired and talked out topic. But upon searching I found zero results for past perfect.

    So, thought I'd ask your opinion again. I'm wondering where you folks stand on past perfect tense.

    I've tried to find anything on the net that allows for it, because I'd like to write that way, but even literary fiction seems to be following this new-speak trend.

    Is it that I'm just stubborn and want to write lazy, or am I sticking to my guns and wanting to allow some flesh in my work?

    What I mean is, is this a trend just in genre fiction to dumb-down grammatical form, or is this an actual shift in modern language, including literary fiction?

    (And why do romance authors always teach writing classes?)

    Hugs ~ Lindi

  2. #2
    Molly B.

    Re: The Death of Past Perfect?


    I think you will find most people responding that past perfect is a no-no wherever you can avoid it. I had to weed a bunch of these from my manuscript after I read the pointers here, but I actually think it improved the language, as opposed to "dumbing it down." It made it cleaner and more interesting, in most cases.

    Lawrence posted an entire list of pointers for editing your MS not long ago that was extremely useful. Search for "Since the topic seems to come up..." and you should find it (I think it's on this forum, but it might be on Unpublished Writers).


  3. #3
    eric mettenich

    Re: The Death of Past Perfect?

    Of course you can use the past perfect. It has its place for defining the relative degree of 'past'.

    Whether you are narrating in simple past (which is more usual) or present tense (which is more immediate) there will always be moments when you need to show a thing in the past and use the past perfect. The fact that very little grammar seems to be taught these days makes the whole business of tenses an issue which is oftern laboured over on these boards.

    Perhaps you should post an example of where you would use this form and then we can talk about the grammatical implications and so forth.


  4. #4
    Lindi Hobbs

    Re: The Death of Past Perfect?

    - - -

    Yes, I'd love to. I'm taking a writing course, and the instructor has admonished us never to us "had" for referring to the past even when it's in the long since past. Example from Century's Son:

    "Morgan's first name, weakened from disuse, had long ago fallen off, and he had never bothered to retrieve it. He was simply Morgan. Except for two semesters at a state university, he had lived all his life in Hayden, Illinois. The year was 1999, and Morgan had worked as a garbageman for almost a quarter of a century. It was not how he had planned to spend his life. Originally he had thought of the job as something to tide him over until the real terms of his future revealed themselves."

    This is an interesting paragraph. I love it, but if I'd written it, my instructor would say to change "he HAD never bothered" to "he never bothered," because she has this aversion to past perfect.

    "He HAD lived all his life in Hayden,"

    -- would have to be trimmed to "he lived all his life --"

    Honestly, it just makes me cringe. I like past perfect, and I don't feel exhausted and in need of a nap having to read that extra single syllable. I understand the need to cut "was/ing" such as "Bob was sitting at the bar," to read "Bob sat at the bar," but really past events, as in a recollection is what I'm being instructed to cut all tenses to simple past. It's a tough pill to swallow.

    "Morgan HAD worked as a garbageman for almost a quarter of a century."
    (Morgan worked as a garbageman for almost a quarter of a century."

    "It was not how he HAD planned to spend his --"
    ( was not how he planned to spend his --)

    "Originally he HAD thought of the job as --"
    (Originally he thought of the job as --)

    Honestly, it just makes me cringe. Something in my gut tells me "NO! Don't listen to her!" So here I am, stuck and feeling queasy.

    Thoughts? ~ Lindi

  5. #5
    Lindi Hobbs

    Re: The Death of Past Perfect?

    Sorry about the repetitive cringing there. It's hard to post when your 11 year old is trying to have a conversation with you about Sponge Bob. ;o)

  6. #6

    Re: The Death of Past Perfect?

    I fail to see how anyone can write without using the past perfect (I call it the "pluperfect"). It is evident, however, that to overuse it would be a stylistic mistake, clogging up the text with more "hads" than a book about haddock and pushing the action a further remove from the reader.

    I use it mostly in the very first phrases of a chapter or section, to set up the present situation.

    For example:

    Adie had spent the night chained up in a toilet behind the office, with a map of Moro for bedding and several fat rats and a colony of mosquitoes for company.


  7. #7

    Re: The Death of Past Perfect?

    Lindi, I think there's a deeper issue involved here - the question not so much of whether to use the past perfect now and again (which I'm sure your instructor would agree to be legitimate) as of whether to make it a default narrative style, the latter being, I suspect, what your instructor is against.

    I agree that the passage you quote is tolerable, but a couple more paragraphs in the same vein and the reader would flag. The reason is that the presupposition of the past perfect is that it's the precursor of more immediate action: so the longer the readers wait for that more immediate action, the more cheesed off they are going to become.

    Your instructoir may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, but the bathwater does need throwing out.


  8. #8
    Molly B.

    Re: The Death of Past Perfect?

    I agree with Goliardys. I think, as with most things, moderation is key. Just as you don't want to fill your MS with unnecessary adverbs, passive voice, or lead-in participle phrases, so do you want to steer clear of excessive use of past perfect. I myself like to use it in the same way as Goliardys, to set up a scene or offer a history. Now, whether or not the publishers and agents would concur is the issue.

  9. #9
    Lindi Hobbs

    Re: The Death of Past Perfect?

    Thanks folks. I'm taking this to my instructor and asking, if what she wants is the total elimination of ALL past perfect, or is she saying that it's best to begin the flashback with a "had been" and then go into simple past tense. If that's the case, then I agree with that. Obviously I don't want a whole page laden with "When he was five, he had been playing in the yard, when Aunt Milly had come out from the house, and had said, ---" etc. That gets old quick. Anyway, I'll let you know what I hear. Take care ~ Lindi

  10. #10
    Pamela Taylor

    Re: The Death of Past Perfect?

    The problem with eliminating all "hads" is you change the meaning. For instance, "he had not intended to live his life that way" and "he didn't intend to live his life that way" have significantly different meanings and implications.

    I like pluperfect when it is appropriate, to push things futher in the past and to indicate a state of completion for things in the past.

    I do think the tendency to say no past perfect is an attempt to fix the wrong problem -- it is not an issue with pluperfect per se, it is an issue with how the story is told. Most of the story of a novel (or other pieces) should be current, not reminisciences or flashbacks. If the author is telling a lot in the past perfect, then maybe there needs to be a reanalysis of where the piece starts. Maybe it needed to start before it does.


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