“Do I Need All Those Hads?” – Past Perfect Tense

past perfect tense pocket-watch-598039_960_720I admit it: when I see certain things in a book, it sets my teeth on edge. One thing that sets me off is abuse of the past perfect tense.

What’s past perfect tense, you ask? Let me explain.
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Let’s say you sent the following two sentences to your editor:

Vivian never saw a skyscraper before she visited New York. So by the end of her first day in Manhattan, her neck ached because she was spending so much time looking up.

And she kicked them back to you with the following edits:

Vivian had never seen a skyscraper before she visited New York. So by the end of her first day in Manhattan, her neck ached because she had spent so much time looking up.

What’s the deal? Does somebody slip your editor five bucks every time she adds the word had to a manuscript? Alas for your poor, beleaguered editor (who could use the extra dough), that’s not what’s going on. Your editor is putting to see and to spend into past perfect tense, which is always formed by using had plus the past participle of the verb in question.

Past perfect is used mainly in two situations: 1) When you talk about an action that was completed before another thing that happened in the past; and 2) when you talk about an action that occurred over a period of time, but ended before another thing that happened in the past.

Let’s use our old friend, the timeline, to sort it out. past perfect tip Timeline 1Our nameless narrator – that’s you – on the right-hand side, is in the present, writing about some events that happened in the past. On the left, there’s a point in time when Vivian had not yet seen a skyscraper. Then comes her fateful trip to New York, and boom, her history of never seeing a skyscraper is immediately over. Because that event has ended, the verb describing the event needs to be in past perfect (had seen).

The scenario for our second sentence is a little bit different. past perfect writing tip Timeline 2Again, you, as the narrator, are in the present, writing about events that happened in the past. The bracket on the left shows Viv’s long day of walking around Manhattan and gawking at skyscrapers. At the point in the middle, she’s ensconced in her hotel, rubbing her sore neck. She’s done looking at skyscrapers (for now, anyway – one presumes she’ll pop a couple of ibuprofen and be back at it tomorrow), so her rubbernecking requires a verb in past perfect tense (had spent).

This much is pretty clear for most folks. Where people run into trouble is when the verb that ought to be in past perfect is to have. Because that’s when you run into the awkward-sounding, and seemingly redundant, had had.

Shelby had had the ability to fly long before her mother found out.

Yeah, sorry, that’s correct. The narrator, in the present day, is talking about a period of time in the past when Shelby had been able to hide her flying ability from her mother – which ended as soon as Mom discovered her doing loop-the-loops over the backyard.

I recognize that this had had business can get old after a few sentences. I can think of a few ways to get around it, and the first one that comes to mind is to pick a different verb. To have is not exactly an action verb, after all. In Shelby’s case, our narrator might write instead, Shelby had learned she could fly long before her mother found out.

Another fix is a bit of a cheat, but it works well with a first-person narrator: use a contraction. I’d had that teddy bear since I was a baby not only sneaks in the first had almost painlessly, but it’s more conversational, so your narrator will sound more like a real person.

My final suggestion is for a case in which you have an extended section like a flashback, in which every action ought to take a past perfect verb. In that case, I think, you can get away with using past perfect verbs just a couple of times at the beginning of the section, and then again a time or two at the end, to signal to the reader that you’ve temporarily moved your story deeper into the past.

Any other suggestions for work-arounds?

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

85 thoughts on ““Do I Need All Those Hads?” – Past Perfect Tense”

  1. Thank you!! I spend a lot of time putting those verbs into the correct tense–especially in full paragraphs. You’re right–it is tiring. I will advise my authors to use a different verb, as you suggest. Hadn’t given that consideration much thought…

  2. Brava, Lynne! Bookmarking this post for when my next author is confused about this; it’s such a clear, succinct explanation. The only caveat I’d add is that while you’re spot on about dropping the past perfect in an extended passage after a sentence or two, I’m not entirely sure you have to return to it … although, *some* indication we’re returning to the default narrative timeline is usually a good idea, so yeah, you might be right on that too. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the kind words, David. 🙂

      I think of the final past perfect sentences in an extended section as being similar to enclosing parenthetical matter. (What’s that meme? “Be sure to close your parentheses — we’re not paying to air-condition the whole outdoors”? 😀 ) But I agree with you that it’s not a hundred percent necessary — especially if, say, the end of your flashback coincides with the end of a section or chapter.

          1. Yeah, and what’s interesting is that I’ve never managed to find a definitive rule about specifically when and where you can drift back to simple past from past perfect (in a lengthy passage). Don’t you wish, sometimes, that Chicago would publish a version specifically geared for fiction? (I seem to be addicted to the word specifically.)

  3. It was the use of those extensive flashbacks that got me into a minor dispute when I was editing. Sometimes things just get too confusing without those ‘hads’. Revising often works well but they can’t be totally avoided in spite of what some writers think.

  4. Congratulations on an excellent post. Grasping an abstraction becomes exponentially easier for some people when they see the dynamics in motion. Many of my former classmates and students struggled with basic economics, for example, simply because they were overwhelmed by the intertwining of abstract concepts against concrete application in sequential fashion. Others who viewed the subject as “common sense” often lacked the perspective to understand the plight of their peers. You shattered a complex relationship before putting the resulting pieces into a limpid picture.

    “Had had” drives me crazy. The refusal to use a contraction or substitute another verb implies many possibilities, none of which are particularly positive. As I was reading your example, I couldn’t resist immediately substituting “possessed” for the second had—not necessarily because it’s the best option but because it popped into my thoughts. I often criticize myself for using past perfect tense too often only to discover it’s necessary for those reasons you mentioned. You wrestled with a bête noire and won. Brilliant!

    1. Thanks, Jeff! “Possessed” could certainly work for Shelby (I think that’s the one you’re talking about…) — and could even be a little wink-and-nudge to the reader, depending on how she came to have the ability to fly. 🙂

  5. First-rate post, Lynne – great stuff! As an EFL teacher in Poland, past perfect is one of the trickiest things to teach to non-native speakers, and your post nails it. Personally I prefer the contraction, “I’d had…” because I think that slips past the reader’s eye quite neatly in fiction writing, but all of your advice above is right on the money 🙂

    1. Confession: I used “I’d had” quite a bit in the books I’ve written in first person. It just sounds more natural and makes the protagonist seem more likable — which is all to the good. 🙂 Thanks, Chris!

  6. I take the “hads” out when I can. If it doesn!t sound right to my ear, I leave it be. When reading, I don’t notice past perfect tense, unless it’s overdone. Usually, ithis occurs during flashbacks. The overuse of the words “just,” “only,” “very,” or “really” bother me a lot more!

    1. i very much wish those were the only words I over use, but they just aren’t. Really. (I take them out of things by others, but it is easier to see them as useless there. But is obviously another of my overused words. As is obviously. Obviously.) 🙂

  7. Like Linda Lee, I take the “hads” out unless they’re necessary for the meaning of the sentence. I never thought of it that way before, but it’s the same as strong colloquial language and other situations. You establish what’s going on until the reader is comfortable with it, then you slide into more normal diction to make it easy to read. Then, if it’s necessary to come back to the complicated situation, you do so clearly.
    Most important point is that the reader is clear what’s going on.
    Second most important point is that the writing communicates easily.

    1. Gordon, that’s a good strategy — depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. If your narrator, third person or otherwise, is setting a tone for the book by using less-than-perfect English, then I can see writing to the ear, as you suggest. But if your aim is to have your narrator slide as far into the shadows as possible, so that the reader’s focus is on your characters and their actions, then I think the best choice is to have your narrator use grammatically correct English throughout.

      If I have to stop to re-read a sentence because you didn’t include a “had” that should have been there, you’re in danger of losing me. I’m in suspension-of-disbelief mode here. Don’t give me a reason to snap out of it.

      Sorry if I sound pedantic. The thing is, readers have been conditioned to expect perfect punctuation and grammar (or nearly so) in trad-pubbed books. Indies who want their work to be considered indistinguishable from trad-pubbed need to meet those readers’ expectations.

      1. This isn’t pedantic. I’m as liberal on the descriptivist vs prescriptivist scale as anyone, but there have to be some rules. Language is primarily about communication, after all. Sure, those rules can always be broken in certain contexts, but tense is essential when telling a story. I can always tell when an author has put little or no thought into the chronology of their story and it takes me right out of it.

  8. This is excellent, Lynne and brilliantly laid out. I actually wanted to do a post on this, but you’ve done way way better than I could have. I once reviewed a book and the whole lot was in the past perfect tense. I was screaming by the end. I didn’t mention it in the review, but did tell the author very politely, in the nicest possible way, that, well, it was completely wrong. Fell on deaf ears. I shall bookmark this and point authors in this direction! Thank you.

  9. Nice post Lynne. Great explanation. It’s funny, it’s one of those things I get and think I use generally quite well but I sure couldn’t explain it to anyone as to how or why. 🙂 So now I’ll send them here to read it. Thank you. Merry Christmas.

    1. It is, Mandy — but again, think about what you’re trying to convey. If “he’d” comes out of the mouth of a first-person narrator, fine. If it comes out of someone’s mouth in dialogue, fine. If it comes from the book’s narrative voice, and you’re trying to set a particular tone (or place, or place in time) by having the narrator use other informal speech, fine. But if your narrator is that disembodied voice we often use in third-person PoV, then I wouldn’t use contractions at all.

      Hope that helps…

  10. The advice you give here is exactly the same that I was given by an editor friend. Excellent explanation that had me on the edge of my seat . . . until I fell off. Had I not been sitting so close to the edge, I would not have . . . oh, heck, you know what I mean. Had enough? 🙂

  11. I guess the real question should be: how far into the past do you want to place the situation? In the first example, I really don’t see anything wrong with the first clause. But the second clause could just as easily state: her neck ached because she spent so much time looking up. Whenever I try to place the verb ‘to have’ into the past perfect tense – ‘had had’ – my MS Word highlights it as a double usage. The more I analyzed it, the more I realized only one ‘had’ is sufficient. The past perfect usually indicates an event from a VERY long time ago, as in, ‘Jesus and I had the same babysitter’ long time ago. Even though you’re trying to clarify the situation by stating event A happened much further back than event B, the verbiage still gets cumbersome. In the end, though, we all have to ask, ‘Does anyone really know what time it is?’

    1. Alejandro, consider this your first clue that Word’s grammar checker is often wrong. 😉 It also believes “anymore” is always one word (it isn’t) and “awhile” is never correct (it sometimes is). The very first thing I do with a new copy of Word is to turn the grammar checker off!

      You’re right that my second sentence could have been, “Her neck ached because she spent so much time looking up” — IF I hadn’t added the time frame. “By the end of her day” is supposed to signify that she didn’t figure out what she was doing to herself until she was no longer distracted by the sights. If I were going for the meaning you’re suggesting, I would have written something like this: “Her neck ached from spending so much time looking up.” That does a better job of conveying the sense that the two events happened at the same time. And again, I’ve eliminated the ambiguity by rewriting the sentence. See how it works? 🙂

      1. Dear Lynne,

        Your phrasing is exemplary. However, with all due respect, may I dare make the following comment. Your ending comment / perspective stating that the two events happened at the same time is seemingly incorrect – or perhaps I have taken you up wrongly. To my mind, an aching neck in the evening was the result of repeatedly looking upwards over the course of the day. Effectively these were individual repeating events that lead to a separate although direct consequence. The cause and the consequence could not have occurred, therefore, at the same time. Considering the situating of a past event in relation to another, or several other, past events, the choice of the Past Perfect is indeed the only correct option available.

        Kind Regards

        Philip

        Just saying…!

        1. Thanks, Phillip. The only thing I’d add (to muddy the waters even further!) is that the effect on her neck of looking up all day was likely cumulative. So maybe what we really need is a past progressive tense. Hmm… 😉

          1. Hello Lynne !

            Yes I fully agree – in fact I posted this point in a direct reply below ! From one perspective the Past Perfect can be used – as summarily explained above. However, There is also the question of appropriateness – which is the point of my subsequent posting whereby I believe the Past Continuous, relative to the given context, is more appropriate.

            I hope my replies aren’t giving you a crick in the neck !

            Have a wonderful day,

            Philip

    2. Dear Alejandro,

      To my mind, as an English language trainer, when situating a past event in relation to another, or several other, past events, the choice of the Past Perfect is generally conceded as being the only correct grammatical option available.

      I hope this helps, or at least intrigues !

      Kind Regards

      Philip

  12. Dear Lynne,

    I am an English language trainer, currently writing what is a revolutionary approach to understanding how the English tenses actually work. I am fundamentally at odds with English grammar books and teaching methods that promote a seriously flawed appraisal of the English Tenses. This is a global issue as, incredibly, all English grammar books and methods today reiterate infinitum the same explanations and definitions almost word for word.

    My first response to your explanation of the Past Perfect was not accepted as judged to be too brash. I disagree as I believe criticism is positive feedback when dealing with open minded people.

    So, how do I express my disagreement with many of the tenants of your article without upsetting you and the many people that applauded your work ? How do I say I respect your contribution and equally say that the perspective you have used, very similar to contributors on various English grammar sites, is fundamentally…how shall I phrase it…highly questionable. Talk about a conundrum !

    In short, the perspective you have offered is personally very motivating and an added justification as to the importance of finishing and publishing my work. And ultimately you are probably an expert in advising me on how best to do so !

    Thanking you in advance for this opportunity and assuring you of my sincerest respect for your person and integrity,

    Philip

    1. Thanks for commenting, Phillip. I think your best bet here would be to post *your* take on the subject. Give us your answer instead of just telling me I’m wrong. That’s how people learn, right? 😉

    2. Philip,

      I’m curious if your approach precludes the hyphenation of compound modifiers (i.e., open minded people)? If so, I would like to hear your rationale. Thus far, the arguments for the practice have been much more logical than those against it.

      Thanks,

      Jeff

      1. Hello Jeff !

        I like the jab about the hyphenation of compound modifiers ! I’ll get back to you and Lynne a bit later to share, as you put it so nicely, my “rationale” !

        Regards,

        Philip

  13. Hello again,

    Not to stretch a point, pun intended, I personally would favour “her neck was aching” rather than “her neck ached”. Why ? It is more appropriate to favour the on-going action of continuous pain rather than relegating it to that of a singular past event. I could say a lot more but I’m saving it for my book !

    It’s all about Perspective, Perspective, Perspective !

    Hope this helps somewhat,

    Kind Regards,

    Philip

  14. Hello Lynne and Jeff,

    Thank you for your replies. First of all Lynne, your take on the first sentence being a Past Perfect context is of course correct – I never said you were wrong. However your explanation of “Why” it is a case for Past Perfect is where I would have reserves. I will get back to you, and Jeff, later today with my reasoning.

    Regarding the aching neck, I believe we now agree that the Past Continuous is the more appropriate form given the context in hand.

    Finally, the last Past Perfect “had spent” is of course correct too – and as mentioned above I’ll get back to you on my take a bit later today.

    Thank you both for having taken the time to reply. English Tense usage is a fascinating topic !

    Looking forward to our exchanges,

    Kind Regards,

    Philip

    1. Philip,

      My post was not intended as a “jab” but rather an earnest request. As an open-minded person, I recognize I may cling to certain perceptions for inferior reasons. Cultural assimilation in particular has made that clear. That’s why I’ve tried to spend my life around provocatively intelligent people. I’d rather look stupid for a brief period of time than remain ignorant for the remainder of my life. That’s my primary reason for visiting sites like this one. We’re all ignorant, just to different extents in different areas.

      Asking someone to explain the rationale behind a choice is a natural part of a collaborative learning process. I’ve consistently allowed my students to openly discuss important topics in a variety of subjects, but I’ve also expected them to provide solid rationale for their choices. Some of them thought I expected too much and too many types of critical thought and excessive written analysis while they were in class, but many of those same students told me years later they were succeeding because I forced them to do things they didn’t think they were capable of doing. Students deserve the credit for doing the work. That’s their choice. I merely use a process that’s been around at least as long as Socrates.

      Hopefully that helps clarify the nature of my question, which stems out of my arguably compulsive adherence to the philosophy of continuous improvement. I accept I will always remain ignorant of certain things, but to suspect I’m ignorant of something important galls me. I don’t wish to makes jabs that lead to jousting because it’s generally a waste of time. Those who prefer it typically learn none of the lessons it might teach the type of people who avoid it.

      Regardless, effective writing is a combination of many things, not the least of which is effective decision making. My experience with statistical analysis and decision-making models—especially as they apply to organizational behavior—taught me that in many facets of life, decisions are based on flimsy factors (or triggers) and insignificant variables. Unchecked inertia makes some people as uncomfortable as unexpected change, even if that inertia could potentially carry a patient person to the stars. So they clamor for planned change. For the right reasons, change can be beneficial. Change for its own sake, however, can bring unintended consequences too inconspicuous to anticipate and too insidious to appreciate until the possibility of reviving any effective alternatives has been extinguished. Consistent with my philosophy of enlightened self-interest, I’m willing to accept your change is the former version and admit my ignorance if you provide reasons more compelling than those I now accept.

      Sincerely,

      Jeff

      “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
      — Oscar Wilde

      P.S. – Language in general is a fascinating topic that’s not taken seriously enough. It’s nothing less than humanity’s hope for progress because no meaningful advancements are made without clearly expressed thought and effective communication. I noticed in a subsequent post you hyphenated a compound modifier. Perhaps “open minded” was merely an oversight, the type of which I make far too often.

  15. Hello again Jeff,

    Just a quick respone regarding your compound modifier, or, compound adjective, comment.

    You may be interested in the following link : http://www.apastyle.org/learn/faqs/when-use-hyphen.aspx

    The link concerns “When do you need to use a hyphen for compound words?” and states :

    “Do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective cannot be misread or, its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary”.

    So, yes, in this case my rationale could preclude the use of a hyphen !

    However, it would seem to be an optional choice as attested to the many references of Open Minded or even Open Mindedness being used without hyphens.

    To be fair, I probably would have put in a hyphen on a different occasion and moreso if I hadn’t been writing so late at night !

    Regards,

    Philip

    1. Yup, this is a style choice. AP style prefers the simple over the complicated — hence, no hyphen if the meaning is already clear without it.

      However, the go-to guide for book publishing (as I understand it) is the Chicago Manual of Style, and their rules are more complex. Section 7.85 offers a handy-dandy chart. 🙂

  16. Philip,

    Thank you for the link. I’ve graded lots of papers formatted in APA, but I frankly don’t remember this particular page even though I’ve probably used it. General Principle One is logical but its vagueness still troubles me, especially since I Google certain compound words to discover some respected dictionaries hyphenate them while others don’t. If I’m not mistaken, the fiction world defers to M-W.

    Chapter 24 of the Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference, which covers only hyphens, states, “The most complicated business conducted by hyphens is uniting words into adjectival compounds that precede nouns.” After editing (among other things) three accreditation reports and one standard operating procedures manual, I can’t disagree. Unfortunately, WDGDR categorizes compound words much differently and much more specifically, but without providing absolute clarity. Regarding compound nouns, Italian-American is hyphenated but French Canadian is not. So you have to let a “good dictionary be your guide.”

    It makes bibliophiles want to scream. I’m reminded of my poor foreign students in Business English arguing with such passion over nuance regarding pronunciation. I had to tell them they were all correct. They just happened to learn in different places. I’m fortunate English was the first language I learned to speak.

    Best wishes,

    Jeff

    P.S.

    Lynne, I apologize for getting off the “had” topic. Here’s a line that is weak in multiple ways from a novel that’s been mostly excellent so far:

    “By the time” X “got home” Y “had had a number of drinks.”

    Is the following better (i.e., is the tense acceptable and the specificity preferable)?

    By the time he got home she was mixing her fourth Dirty Martini.

    1. If I may Jeff !

      Thank you for your comments and we resoundingly agree that English can be a minefield at times, although I like to think a “fun” mindfield !

      Regarding Dirty Martinis…if I may interfer for the first and last time, the first sentence refers to her having already had/drunk a number of drinks, whereas the second sentence refers to her being in the process of mixing another drink. Two different contexts and therefore mutually exclusive.

      I would probably add the word already as in :

      “By the time he got home, she was already mixing her fourth Dirty Martini”.

      Ultimately it’s really up to you to choose the context you want to paint !

      I’ll leave you to it….

      Kind Regards,

      Philip

      1. Philip,

        In context, either tense would be work, although I prefer the latter, because immediately the “When the shouting started…” and “…she turned on him….” I believe “already” is implied, but I’m certain a strong case could be made for its inclusion. Regardless, it’s nice to know people care about such things.

        Merry Christmas!

        Jef

  17. Hello Lynne, and Jeff,

    First and foremost, I don’t think anyone masters all of English Grammar at any one time. Furthermore, many instances of English usage do lend themselves to alternative interpretations whether founded on strict grammatical references or modern spoken English. That is the fun of comparing and contrasting such a lively language !

    Returning to the dilemma of the Past Perfect. I won’t be able to go into too much depth on the matter as I haven’t finished, and therefore haven’t copyrighted, my book yet !

    However, I will attempt to provide some clarification – which of course is open to debate ! And please, if by any chance my choice of phrasing is perceived to be not as diplomatic as it could be, it is for expediency sake and also to avoid spending hours needlessly paraphrasing. We are all adults here and I at no time would deliberately wish my phrasology to sound derogatory or condescending.

    Lynne, you first state with reference to your Timeline : “Our nameless narrator – that’s you – on the right-hand side, is in the present, writing about some events that happened in the past. On the left, there’s a point in time when Vivian had not yet seen a skyscraper. Then comes her fateful trip to New York, and boom, her history of never seeing a skyscraper is immediately over. Because that event has ended, the verb describing the event needs to be in past perfect (had seen)”.

    First Point : The writer being in the Present has absolutely no influence on the choice of Tense. The choice of Tense is driven by the context being described by the writer. This context is firmly rooted in the past. So, politely, exit the writer in the Present !

    Second Point : you state in your explanation that “there’s a point in time when Vivian had not yet seen a skyscraper”. My take on this would be that there WAS a point in time when Vivian SAW a skyscraper for the first time and up to that point in time she HAD NEVER SEEN a skyscraper before. In other words, I don’t see that you can say that there was a point in time where she hadn’t seen a skyscraper, but there is a point in time where she saw the skyscraper. The linking of these events is what imposes the use of the Past Perfect – “Vivian had never seen a skyscraper before she visited New York”. I elaborate further on this point in Point 3.

    Third Point : You say “Then comes her fateful trip to New York, and boom, her history of never seeing a skyscraper is immediately over. Because that event has ended, the verb describing the event needs to be in past perfect (had seen)”.

    The justification proposed is : Because that event has ended, the verb describing the event needs to be in past perfect (had seen).

    My take is that, first and foremost, the Past Perfect is used to “Link” two past events where effectively one event precedes the other. For example, you could say that “Vivien WENT to New York and for the first time SAW a skyscraper”. We see that the Past Simple is perfectly appropriate to describe the event in hand and so the verb does not need to take the Past Perfect form.

    However, very essentially, in your particular example you are “linking” two past events, namely : So by the end of her first day in Manhattan, her neck ached because she had spent so much time looking up.

    You are effectively linking the soreness of her neck to its cause – the repeated looking upwards at all those magnificent skyscrapers. This linking context is again firmly rooted in the past and so we have what some grammar books like to term a “Past of Past” situation. This requires the use of a Past Simple or Past Continuous for the more recent past event, and the use of the Past Perfect for the more distant past event. Indeed, as already discussed with you, we agree that the “neck ached” should take the Past Continuous form – “her neck was aching”.

    I hope I have clarified things to your satisfaction, but do feel free to rebuke or comment on my take on this contextual usage of the Past Perfect.

    Kind Regards,

    Philip

    1. Hi Phillip,

      Thanks for explaining your point of view. I admit I had a little trouble crafting my examples. Certainly with the first one, you can consider her having never seen a skyscraper as a period of time rather than a point in time.

      As to your first quibble, however, you’re ignoring the one flesh-and-blood person in this whole house of cards: the author. If there’s no narrator in the “present day,” then what’s the justification for using past tense? The narrative has to be in the past relative to *something*. And as the author, you’re writing the story in the present day. As soon as you “exit the writer in the Present,” you do away your justification for using past tense at all. You might as well write the whole book in present tense — which has been done, but it has a tendency to make some readers uncomfortable. 😉 Even with an essay, you have the author, in the present day, writing about events that happened in the past.

      So no, the novelist must think about his or her role in the proceedings — which is as the narrator — and where he or she is sitting relative to the events he or she is relating. Maybe as a grammar teacher, you can skip this part and just talk about the relationships between the verbs and so on. But for a fiction author, this is one of the very first decisions he or she has to make.

      Good luck with your book! 🙂

      1. Hello Lynne,

        I am not sure how to proceed !

        Am I interpreting what you said incorrectly ? You seem to be saying that the events in the story should integrate the Present Moment writing of the story by the author ???

        The author, I presume we can agree, is not “in” the story. Neither is the author part of the story, nor has the author anything do with the actions or events in the story other than the author is effectively creating them relative to the storyline of the book, essay, story, fable, etc.

        The contexts described therefore are relative to the story being written by the author who is situating various events in the past, present or future, but never in relation to him or herself….unless the story line has a special tack to it whereby the author is involved somehow in the narrative of the story – but that is literally a different story !

        My “quibble” (??) is not so much a quibble as a genuine, and sound, grammatical perspective. The contexts described by the author are what drive the choice of Tense or Continuous form as needs be. These choices are evidently derived as a function of the narrative and the contextual relationships therein.

        However, at no moment, unless under exceptional narrative circumstances as mentioned above, would these events have anything to do with the author and the time and place of writing. I am sure you would agree that the story is one thing, and the writing of it by an author is something completely different.

        You say that “If there’s no narrator in the “present day,” then what’s the justification for using past tense? The narrative has to be in the past relative to *something*. And as the author, you’re writing the story in the present day. As soon as you “exit the writer in the Present,” you do away your justification for using past tense at all. You might as well write the whole book in present tense”.

        You seem to mixing Narrator and Narrative and Choice of Tense in an absolutely untenable point of view. Just taking one example – you say that : “If there’s no narrator in the “present day,” then what’s the justification for using past tense?”.

        The justification is very simply – the author isn’t in the story and so the story, and tenses, cannot in any way be related, linked or whatever to the author. It’s the author’s story and he or she can choose the timeline, context and thereby the tense or continuous form that he or she wants in accordance with the event in the story – whether it be a situated in the Past, the Present or the Future.

        I remain very surprised by your point of view. Perhaps I am not getting something.

        Regards,

        Philip

        1. Philip, I too apologize for taking us off topic, but I’m curious about something. You appear to have some strong opinions about language and the craft of fiction, yet you use some decidedly nonstandard English. Do you have some French or maybe even German background?

          1. Hello ! I sincerely hope I don’t come off as having very strong opinions about language. I do disagree with the standard explanations of the English Tenses as presented in just about every English grammar book and method available today. That may be controversial, but hopefully I manage to convey my convictions with relative moderation !

            As for strong opinions about the craft of fiction, I would have to say that I have no opinion at all regarding the craft of fiction. I am not a fictional writer and therefore have only admiration for the authors of well crafted works of fiction.

            I am both curious and very genuinely interested in learning which aspects of my replies you consider to be non-standard English ?

            Thanking you in advance for your response,

            Regards,

            Philip

          2. There’s nothing wrong with having strong opinions; it demonstrates passion about language, which I share. The only downside is it leaves us open to criticism and the vagaries of Muphry’s Law. 😉

            Oh, apologies, I made an assumption about your interest in fiction, partly because of your engagement with Lynn over narration.

            No, all I meant was your tendency to leave a space before certain punctuation marks (as the French do) and to somewhat randomly capitalize nouns (more common in German).

          3. Hello David,

            Good comment ! Actually I believe my “spacing” issues stem from my Christian Brothers schooling. I have looked around internet and apparently there is an argument along the lines of older English and French shared a space for clarity for “high” punctuation marks (;:?!) and no space for “low” punctuation marks (…,.). Apparently older Indian references also privilege spacing. However, the modern take is that there are no spaces. Perhaps it could be argued as a style difference. Alternatively I’d say I’m just showing my age !

            As for Lynne’s recent “quibbling” anecdote, did you see any sense in what she was proposing in terms of the author and choice of tense ?!

            Regards,

            Philip

          4. Gandhi inserted space before punctuation in The Story of My Experiments with Truth. It puzzled me at first, but outsiders also wonder why Americans speak a different language than the UK until they study the history of the country’s independence. India has been independent a relatively short period of time, but the roots were deep many decades ago.

          5. Hello again David !

            Regarding my use of random capitals ! I use them not so randomly ! I tend to use them to give specific importance to certain words such as the Past Perfect, the Present, etc., when attempting to clarify grammatical issues. It is probably more style than absolutely correct and I would argue that consistency is an important factor to its usage. Nonetheless I haven’t found any reference that says it is absolutely wrong to do so. For me, it’s a way to highlight the key descriptors that punctuate my grammar / tense appraisals.

            Hope that’s OK by you !

            Regards,

            Philip

        2. Hi again, Philip,

          Yes, there’s something you’re not getting. And I presume that you haven’t written much fiction, else it would be obvious to you.

          Let’s say you attended a live presentation by a flesh-and-blood storyteller. By her actions — tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, etc. — the storyteller doesn’t just tell the story, but acts it out. In this situation, would you say the storyteller is not part of the story? I wouldn’t. Her gestures and her word choice — all of it — are part of the package. Another storyteller might use the same material, but emphasize different aspects of the story; it would be the same story, but not the same experience for the audience. So the role of the storyteller is integral, and I would even say *critical*, to the story.

          In written fiction, the author-as-narrator is analogous to an oral storyteller. Before beginning to write, the author makes certain critical decisions: Who’s the main character? Who are his friends and who are his enemies? When and where does the story happen? First- or third-person point of view? Present tense or past tense? Comedy or tragedy? Those initial decisions inform every word of the story, just as the oral storyteller’s gestures, tone of voice, and so on inform every word of the story. Compare “Beowulf” (I like Seamus Haney’s translation) with John Gardner’s novel “Grendel”. It’s the same story, but the reader feels very differently about the monster at the end of “Grendel” than he or she does at the end of “Beowulf.”

          You simply cannot say the author isn’t in the story. *The author is the storyteller.*

          I hope that helps. 🙂

          1. I agree with Lynne. You can’t untangle the author from the tale. Every decision—about how its told, from whose perspective, the tone, mood, tense, choices of what to emphasize, when to emphasize it, all of it—is orchestrated by that one person.

        3. Philip, I’m not just coming at this as a writer but also as an editor. All I know is that in current English, across the board, it’s not considered correct to leave that space. I’m pretty liberal about style quirks and idiosyncrasies, but I think even I would try to dissuade one of my author clients from doing that. Same with the capitalization of most nouns (that aren’t proper nouns). The current trend, as favoured by most modern style manuals, is downstyle, and I happen to find that more aesthetically pleasing.

          Style versus grammar is a fascinating conversation in itself, but I fear we’ve strayed far from the original discussion now! Have a great holiday, whatever you celebrate. 🙂

  18. Great post. My editor likes to zap “hads” if she can. On the flip side, I read someone’s manuscript and in ONE paragraph, “had” was used 7 times!

  19. Verbs. They’re troublesome little boogers, are they not? I myself have started a movement to eliminate verbs from fiction entirely. If diets are going paleo, why not language? It would solve this entire conundrum. You can read about it in my new book: Don’t Be So Tense: Verb-Free and Loving It.

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