Let’s Hear A Little Respect for the Pluperfect

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Television writers have little respect for standard English grammar. I know that.

I also know that American writers in general have little use for the pluperfect (past perfect) tense, preferring instead to use the simple past with adverbial modifiers.

Nevertheless, I was astonished by an exchange between a judge and a lawyer on an episode of the The Good Wife:

The lawyer is trying to impugn a witness who has testified that a young man arrested at the scene of a murder did not have time to construct a story to conceal his involvement. The lawyer points out that, according to the police report, the man did have time. The lawyer says that by the time the suspect had reached the police station,

…he had had time to construct a story.”

When the lawyer requests that his client be released on bail, the judge fixes him with a disapproving frown and says,

Request denied. If for no other reason than that you used the pluperfect tense.

Apparently TV writers are at war with more than pronouns.

The pluperfect, also called the past perfect, is a verb tense used to indicate that an action took place before some other past action. It is formed with the auxiliary verb had and a past participle: When I arrived, the dog had gone.

The word pluperfect derives from the Latin phrase tempus praeteritum plus quam perfectum, meaning “past tense more than perfect.”

The word perfect comes from Latin perfectus, meaning “completed.” An action in the pluperfect is over, done, finished.

Here’s an example of a novelist’s use of the pluperfect when writing a third person narrative in the past tense. It’s from Death in Holy Orders by English writer P. D. James.

The ash, with its heavy cladding of ivy, was unmissable, but as they turned into the road, which was little more than a lane, one glance showed clearly what had happened. A large bough of the tree had been torn from the trunk and now lay along the grass verge, looking in the growing light as bleached and smooth as a bone. From it sprouted dead branches like gnarled fingers. The main trunk showed the great wound where the branch had been torn away, and the road, now passable, was still strewn with the debris of the fall: curls of ivy, twigs and a scatter of green and yellow leaves.

The earliest example of the term pluperfect in the OED is dated 1500. The latest illustration of the term, dated 1995, reflects the modern disdain for this tense:

1995 Church Times 17 Nov. 17/3 They each gave us a few paragraphs of Mills & Boon prose which were rather hard going, being over-full of pluperfect verbs.

NOTE: Mills & Boon is a British romance publisher founded in 1908 and sold to Harlequin Enterprises in 1971.

American writers, perhaps aiming for a breezy style, avoid the pluperfect as much as possible, but they do use it. The following extracts from Tunnel Vision show how Sara Paretsky deals with it.

Sometimes she disguises it with contractions:

I’d had my office there for ten years, so long I’d come to overlook its litany of ills.

Sometimes she introduces the pluperfect with a had, then switches to simple past:

The building had already been one-third empty when the Culpeppers handed out their notice at New Year’s. They tried first to bribe, then to force, the rest of us into leaving.

And sometimes she stays with the pluperfect throughout a paragraph:

In a second’s unthinking revulsion I had thrust the bat back behind the radiator. I wanted to protect Emily and I didn’t want anyone to know the weapon was there. But I would have to tell the police. Staring sightlessly into the mist, I saw it had been foolish to think otherwise. And my first impulse, to make an anonymous call, was also foolish: my prints were on the bat. At least I hadn’t been so stupid as to wipe them clean.

Any writing device can become an obstacle to reading comfort, for example: sentences all the same length, numerous characters whose names all begin with the same sound, an unusual word used numerous times. And yes, over-use of the pluperfect.

However, just because the use of the pluperfect in narrative writing has its pitfalls, don’t fall for advice that tells you to “avoid the clumsy pluperfect altogether.” The pluperfect is a useful narrative tense. It’s up to the writer to keep it from becoming clumsy.

The next time you read over your work and feel yourself becoming bogged down in hads, you might question the way you are presenting your story. The fault may lie with an over-reliance on flashbacks. You may need to figure out some other way to lay in your back story.

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6 thoughts on “Let’s Hear A Little Respect for the Pluperfect”

  1. In Spanish it’s called the pluscuamperfecto, which is very likely the coolest word ever. And I never understood it before I studied spanish.

  2. In one of my jobs, my boss consistently edited out what he considered “unnecessary” ‘had’ and ‘that’ words from some project documentation and proposals. He kept insisting that they were grammatically incorrect, which annoyed me tremendously as I’m quite proud of my writing and make a point of ensuring that it’s correct. Most people in high-tech go for the shortest version of any kind of written documentation. It’s very annoying.

  3. Thanks allena, similarly it is Plusquamperfekt in German. When I first came upon the English expression pluperfect it sent shivers down my spine and still does.

    That said, I use it quite naturally in English speech and writing. I come across texts occasionally where the simple past is used instead and it strikes me as wrong and unnatural every time.
    There is nothing wrong with using the past perfect, it makes the meaning of a text clear and unmistakeable.

  4. Frankly, I don’t like the use of the word “perfect” because it fails to describe any tense at all to me; it doesn’t seem to make sense. This is especially true for me when trying to learn another language.

  5. Thanks for making the pluperfect quite clear. I believe the best choice when it’s necessary to distinguish from the past—as shown in the example—is to begin in the pluperfect, then switch to the simple past for the rest of the paragraph. If a second or third paragraph is needed, then begin each with a reminder of the time period by again beginning with the pluperfect.

  6. I’m so happy that someone else noticed this exchange in The Good Wife. It’s little throwaway lines like that that make the show so enjoyable. I started watching it all over again just to find that line! (Should probably get out more…)

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