Author Topic: Timeline for the past perfect tense  (Read 13638 times)

Joe Carillo

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Timeline for the past perfect tense
« on: October 20, 2021, 09:44:55 PM »
In English, the past perfect tense describes an action completed before another past event, or an action completed before a specific time focus. Grammatically, as the present perfect does, the past perfect likewise uses the main verb’s past participle but with this big difference: the past participle form is paired off with “had”—the past form of “have”—to become the past perfect component of the sentence. And one more crucial thing: this past perfect component must be paired off with at least one other action in the simple past tense.

In effect, the typical past perfect sentence—with one notable exception that we will take up for last—consists of at least two separate actions, one in the past perfect and the others in the simple past. This is shown by the past perfect timeline below:


                                                IMAGE CREDIT: GRAMMAR-MONSTER.COM


Always keep in mind that the past perfect, unlike the present perfect, does not cover actions that may extend to the present. Instead, it emphasizes the fact that one action, event, or condition ended before another past action, event, or condition began.

How the past perfect works can be clearly seen in these two sentences: “Carmela had cooked breakfast at the farmhouse before her husband arrived.” “All the pupils had already packed up when the bus came to take them to summer camp.”

In the first example, Carmela’s action carries the past participle, “had cooked breakfast,” that was completed before another past event, her husband’s arrival. In the second, the pupils’ action carries the past participle, “had already packed up,” that was completed before another past event, the coming of the bus.

In practice, the past perfect becomes very useful in showing the hierarchy of past actions in compound or complex sentences, as in this sentence: “Jessica promptly came for the interview at 9:30 a.m. but the personnel manager had left for an urgent meeting.” The action of the dependent clause, “but the personnel manager had left for an urgent meeting,” has to be in the past perfect tense because it took place before Jessica’s coming for the interview.

When a sentence has more than one dependent clause, the dependent clause whose action precedes all the other actions in the sentence takes the past perfect, while all the other actions take the simple past tense: “After we dug up the modest treasure that Mario had discovered, we found even bigger treasures in the vicinity.” Here, the independent clause “we found even bigger treasures in the vicinity” uses the mandatory simple past.

That the independent clause should take the simple past tense in a past perfect sentence holds true no matter how the sentence is structured. Consider this sentence: “The veterinarian kept the dog in the pet hospital for a week because it had contracted a contagious disease.” Both the action in the independent clause, “The veterinarian kept the dog in the pet hospital for a week,” and in the dependent clause, “because it had contracted a contagious disease,” happened in the past, but the latter takes the past perfect because it precedes the former in time.

We must keep in mind, though, that the past perfect tense has one unique use—actually its baseline use—that does not require the explicit use of another action completed before another past event.

Look at this sentence: “The heavy rains had lasted a month.” It is in the past perfect because the action began and ended sometime in the past, as opposed to the present perfect “The heavy rains has lasted a month,” which suggests a condition that began in the past and continues in the present. Here, the past perfect provides the grammatical vehicle for the action to break away from the here and now straight to the past, where it should be.

(Next: Timeline for the future perfect tense)     October 28, 2021

This essay, 2068th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the October 21, 2021 Internet edition of The Manila Times,© 2021 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this article online in The Manila Times:
Timeline for the past perfect tense

To listen to the audio version of this article, click the encircled double triangle logo in its online posting in The Manila Times.
« Last Edit: November 02, 2021, 07:18:45 PM by Joe Carillo »