The Editor Pontificates: Past Perfect

Double-Stuf-OreosNo, I’m not talking about the perfect past – you know, where your grandma keeps going on about the Good Old Days in the Past, When Everything Was Perfect. What I’m talking about here is the grammatical “past perfect” tense.

Bear with me for a moment here. I keep stumbling over this matter in my work as editor (ahem – I almost feel like I should capitalise this: My Work As Editor. Spoken with a suitably declarative intonation, so that the capitals become evident and everyone is duly impressed. Anyway…). Now, most of you probably don’t give a rip about grammar. If so, just ignore me. But some of you might actually care, and for those, allow me to pontificate for a moment.

“Pontificate”, incidentally, comes from the Latin “pontifex”, which was an early word for “bishop” (the Pope is still called Pontifex Maximus today). So, to pontificate is, quite plainly, to preach. Speaking of Latin, “perfect” is, of course, also Latin, from “perficio”, “through + make”, or “finish building”. Something that’s perfect is completed, all the way. So in grammar terms, something that’s “perfect” is something that’s finished, over with.

I was in an online discussion the other day on this very topic, and one participant, who is an ESL teacher in Asia, said that when he talks to his students he calls the past perfect the “double past”. That’s a great term, because it describes exactly what it is. Like a Double Oreo cookie, where you get twice the filling (the Oreo of Oreos, as it were), the double past means you get the past of the past.

So, when I’m talking about today, I use, of course, the present tense. “Today I waffle on about grammar matters and bore my readers to tears.” If I talk about yesterday, I use the simple past: “Yesterday, I thought of this topic.” Now, if I want to talk about something that happened before the past, I use the past perfect: “Yesterday, I thought of this topic, because the day before yesterday I had discussed it with other writers online.” When I thought of the topic yesterday, the discussing was already in the past. Double past, or past perfect.

In English, to put it simply, the past perfect is formed by “had” and the appropriate verb form: today I eat, yesterday I ate, the day before that I had eaten. (There are some convoluted verb forms where you end up with stacks of “had”, but we’ll ignore those here.)

In daily life, we rarely use the double past. But in writing, it does become relevant. Most fiction is written in the past tense (“It was the blue bowl that started it all…”), so if you describe something that happened before that moment you’re describing, you’ve got to put it in past perfect: “It was a turquoise blue, very much like the eyes of the weird guy that had stared at Cat so disturbingly in the Room of Local Antiquities.” If that “had” wasn’t there, it would mean that the guy is standing there right now, staring at Cat – but it happened earlier, before she walked into the Ceramics Room and saw the fateful blue bowl. Because the whole story is told in past tense, anything that happened prior to it requires the double past. (If you want to know what else happened with Cat and the blue bowl and just who that weird guy was, go read Seventh Son. End of advertisement.)

The most common mistake in this regard is to have your story told in past tense, but forget to use the double past when you’re telling of events prior to your “narrative present” (i.e. the time the story takes place in), which can leave the reader scratching their head as to exactly what’s happening when. But I’ve also seen stories that are told in present tense, where the author overcompensates: the “narrative present” is the present, so anything that happens before then should be in the simple past tense (single Oreo) – but then the author tries extra-hard to get the tense right and ends up putting in an excess of “had”. Nope, you don’t want that. If you’re telling it right now, a prior event goes in the simple past – single Oreo. If you’re telling everything in the past, a prior event goes in the past perfect or double past – it gets the double Oreo.

Make sense? Good. I’ll get off my editor’s pulpit then and stop boring you.

Life, the Universe, the Past Perfect and Double Oreos. Pass the milk.