The not so mysterious disappearance of the past perfect

One of the cardinal virtues of good writing is clarity, and proper use of verb tenses is crucial to clarity. Since most students have never been informed of their purpose, or form, they trudge around in a swamp of verb tenses, using them arbitrarily without controlling them.

The past perfect (the “had + past participle” form of the verb), for example, is disappearing. Going extinct. Dying out. This form is used to show a sequence of events, and without it, the events are not clearly lined up. In my view, it is indispensable to clear writing, and should not be an endangered form.

Textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference and The Everyday Writer have one-sentence explanations and single examples of the past perfect. The paltry online exercises they offer are, in my opinion, useless. I presume (and I might be wrong) that they subscribe to the commonly held philosophy that native speakers pick up these forms without formal instruction. Since my students make a terrible mess of verb tenses, this philosophy has not produced clarity in either the students’ minds or in their work.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) has online exercises in tense consistency ( which include a couple of examples of the past perfect.

Without the past perfect, the timeline often dissolves.  Here are two sentences which would have been clearer if the student had used the past perfect.

I was shocked and hurt when my uncle died. Would I have responded better if I was told that he was going to die?

I assumed it was all over since a week already passed.

Note how much clearer the sentences are when the past perfect is used:

Would I have responded better if I had been told he was going to die?

assumed  it was all over since a week had already passed.

There is another clue that students have not been properly introduced to the past perfect – they sometimes use it without the context of a previous event. Here are two sentences where the past perfect is inappropriate:

The sweet moment between Helen and her son had put a smile on my face.

I had seen him yesterday.

The simple past should have been used, indicating this this was a one-time event, unconnected to any other event:

The sweet moment between Helen and her son put a smile on my face.

I saw him yesterday.

By the time students are in college, it is very late to establish new verb patterns. The student’s instincts have already become malformed.  I find that no matter how many times I mention the function and form of the past perfect, this mistake recurs. They understand the logic of the past perfect, but it takes a while for them to master it.

Exercise:  Though verb tense habits are, in my experience, hard to rearrange, you can have the students complete the Purdue exercises, and make up some of your own.  They can either be the fill-in-the-blanks or the yes-no type, where the student indicates whether the verb tense is correctly or incorrectly used.

Of particular value are both correct and incorrect sentences culled from your students’ work, which can be presented for evaluation.




One Response to “The not so mysterious disappearance of the past perfect”

  • Many teachers and writers misuse the “past perfect” form because they do not fully understand that the “perfect aspect” indicates more than mere time sequence, it indicates meaningful CONsequence. More specifically, the past perfect form (more precisely, the past tense, perfect aspect) indicates that some past status (hence past tense) is affected by an even more previous event or condition. For instance, “I had never been so tired” indicates no sequence of events, but rather that some past status (my state of exhaustion last Tuesday, perhaps) was affected in some meaningful way (in this case, made to seem more intense, perhaps) by some even previous state of affairs (its unprecedence).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *