Okay, not really, but the topic of past perfect verb usage has come up in conversation lately. When is perfect not so perfect (and why is it called “perfect”?)?
I dragged the lab copy of The Transitive Vampire off the shelf (yes, even Science Geeks find good grammar to be useful) but found it to be fairly useless on the subject. “Had” is used as a helping verb in the past perfect tense, but there isn’t much explanation about how to use it to write a best-selling novel (or even one that passes muster with one’s critique group).
I am kind of an intuitive writer, and usually can get my verb tenses, pronouns and numbers to agree without too much thought. I think. Had thought. Whatever. I need help with commas, of course, and have to remind myself not to end a sentence with a preposition; but most of the time, I think I do okay (all right, all right…yeah, there is that run-on sentence thing. Whatever.).
Past perfect is used to express an action completed in the past:
Dave slammed the door and ran a hand through his hair, tugging at the short strands. Regular old past tense, which is how the action of the story is told.
What the hell had Carol been thinking? She had stepped in front of the bank robber with no regard for her own life. Now we are into past perfect: the past of the past.
That seems pretty straight forward, but it gets really tedious to read, especially when we are delving into back story (especially really ridiculous backstory):
Dave couldn’t fall in love with someone who had no regard for her personal safety. It made him think about his mother. She had jumped in front of a speeding train to rescue a baby seal who had been stranded by a psychopathic zookeeper. She hadn’t been killed instantly, but instead had lingered: her body had been shattered but her mind had remained intact. Knowing that his mother had been aware of her condition had been the worst thing to watch…
So what are the rules here? I did the usual Google search, and came up with plenty of websites with specific rules about how to use past perfect.
This website was helpful, and has exercises to practice on:
But what about a long paragraph, or even a long flashback?
Blog wisdom seems to suggest that using past perfect at the beginning of the flashback (or whatever) and then switching to regular past tense is appropriate, as long as you are clear about the time change when leaving the flashback for the “real” time of the story.
http://tracey-rolfe.blogspot.com/2007/06/past-perfect.html (I love that this is another Tracy/Tracey/Traci worrying about this stuff)
If I were to rewrite the previous paragraph intuitively I would probably do this:
Dave couldn’t fall in love with someone who had no regard for her personal safety. It made him think about his mother. She had jumped in front of a speeding train to rescue a baby seal who had been stranded by a psychopathic zookeeper. She wasn’t killed instantly, but instead lingered: her body had been shattered but her mind remained intact. Knowing that his mother was aware of her condition had been the worst thing to watch…
And okay, that’s just messy. Granted I would never submit a manuscript with my verbs highlighted to emphasize their lack of agreement. What do we call that: tense hopping? I am terrified of head hopping, now that I know what it is.
Now that I am thinking about this past/past perfect tense thing, I am wondering if I should find the nearest Grammar-holics meeting. Anyone want to be my sponsor? I am sure there are books out there I should buy…can someone tell me which is the Big Book of Grammar-holics Anonymous?