Monday, June 15, 2015

The Imperfect Past Perfect

I’m reading a wonderful novel at the moment, which I will not name because I’m going to complain about one aspect of it that drives me crazy: Overuse of the past perfect.

Some of you are going to be mumbling, “I don’t know what past perfect is, really.”  Past perfect doesn’t mean that something the past had no flaws. It means that the event happened farther back than the immediate past:

Past:  We ran six miles every day for two years.

Past Perfect: We had run six miles every day for two years.

The past perfect implies “in those days.”

Let’s go farther.

“We ran six miles every day for two years. It was glorious. When we moved to the city, we found it hard to keep that up, so we joined a gym.”  Completed thought.

“We had run six miles every day for two years. It had been glorious. When we had moved to the city we had found it hard to that up, so we had joined a gym.”

The problem is that in the past perfect the use of the word “had” can get repetitive. (Note the example above “had” in italics). It isn’t necessary to repeat it again and again. The first use of the word “had” establishes that this is something that happened a while back. Then you can use it sparingly:

“We had run six miles every day for two years before we had to move. It was glorious. When we moved to the city we found it hard to keep that up so we joined a gym.”

Does that last sentence lose its meaning by dropping three of its use of the word “had?” No. It just makes the reading smoother.

In the book I’m reading, there is a page or more in which the protagonist is remembering the past. And the author never drops the word “had.” It gets numbing. Not only did the author write it, but the editor did not correct it.

It isn’t that the usage is incorrect; it’s that the usage is cumbersome. Here’s what Chris Roerden says in Don’t Sabotage Your Submission: 

“Steer clear of cumbersome…The one-time use of the past perfect tense is usually sufficient to signal a transition to the more distant past…After that the simple past tense is fine. It makes the long-ago action more immediate and less wordy.”

Or from Elizabeth’s Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover, “In flashbacks, drop “had” once the past is established.”

I’m curious to know what grammatical quirks annoy others. Especially those that a good editor should catch and correct.


Michele Drier said...

The past perfect drives me crazy as well, Terry, but my biggest bugaboo is homonyms. I'm so tired of reading "poured" instead of "pored" or "peek" instead of "pique" or, or, of my favorites is "he pulled up the horse's reigns."
That's some mighty horse!

Terry said...

I've never seen the "reigns," but the others, yes. I once read something in which someone said her interest was "peaked." I wrote and told her it should be "piqued." Boy, was she piqued! She went into some convoluted explanation of why "peaked" was actually the proper word. No.

Unknown said...

Currently for me it's overuse of gerunds / present participles / ing's. Because such things can be nouns, adjectives, and parts of verbs, they can start to make a painful echo even when they are used in a grammatically correct way. Then there is the common temptation (which I used to do a lot) of using them in situations like this: She ran across the room, changing her clothes.

Terry said...

Hmmm, I'll keep a lookout for that. Since it doesn't raise a flag for me, that probably means I do it myself!

Leslie Budewitz said...

Good observation, Terry! I'm sure there are lots of bugaboos (I wrote that as bugabooks!) that snare my attention at the moment, but then I forget them -- until the next time! In a book-to-be-unnamed that I just finished, the bugaboo is more word choice than grammar: the author refers to "pre-grated cheese" and "pre-mixed dough." No. Something is either grated or it's not. What she/he means is grated by someone else, so "I bought packaged grated cheese" or "I saved time by buying grated chase."

Years ago when I worked for a court, the judges and commissioners set up a "pre-screening program" to decide which cases needed oral argument and which didn't. I was but a lowly clerk, right out of law school, and could not convince them that the sense of "action before some other action" was inherent in the word screening, making the prefix "pre" redundant.

If you see any bugabooks in my books, tell me. Gently. But tell me!

Terry said...

Leslie, I think part of the problem with that "pre" business is the terrible tendency to try to fluff up words to make them seem more meaningful. Wait! Maybe I'll write about that in next week's post.

As for errors in your books, I'll let you know, with much hemming and hawing.

Susan D said...

Lady, amen.

And yes, Michele, those mind-grating homonyms. I recently had to read (record) a cosy mystery where the protagonist, in between bouts of NOT taking care of business or indeed doing any real detecting, referred to the grizzly experience of finding the body (where no bear was involved) and later gave someone "free reign." They weren't the only ones in that book, but they've stuck with me. Of course, the writer could be blameless. Clearly editor and copy editor are severely culpable.

One I see far too frequently (yes, along with pouring over the books, which is okay if you're drinking and studying at the same time) is discrete, when discreet is clearly the wanted word. I suspect the writer doesn't even realise they are two discrete words.

Whew. Thanks for listening to my rant.