The Easy-to-Fix Tense Problem That Might Be Tripping Up Your Readers

Image: speedbump in road
Photo credit: derekbruff on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

Today’s guest post is by author, editor and writing coach Mathina Calliope (@MathinaCalliope).


One of the most common edits I make when reading client manuscripts is changing simple past to past perfect in cases where simple past creates confusion by implying two events happened at about the same time when in fact one event happened before the other event.

Before I go any further, here’s a quick refresher:

Simple present: I speak
Present perfect: I have spoken
Simple past: I spoke
Past perfect: I had spoken

Most of us easily and automatically use past perfect in speech—and in a lot of our writing as well. We’re telling a story about something that happened in X time and we need to insert a piece of information for context, something that happened before X time.

  1. I walked to the store to get groceries.
  2. When I arrived, I smacked my forehead.
  3. I had left my list behind.

In the story, walked, arrived, and smacked are in simple past, while had left is in past perfect.

How would the meaning change if we used simple past for sentence 3?

  1. I walked to the store to get groceries.
  2. When I arrived, I smacked my forehead.
  3. I left my list behind.

Now the syntax communicates that I leave my list behind immediately after I arrive and smack my head. But that doesn’t make sense. Leave it behind where? In my car? Why would I do that? Leave it at the grocery store? Then why do I smack my forehead?

Past perfect helps us understand that sentence 3 explains sentence 2. It tells what happened before in order to cause me to smack my forehead.

Now, readers are smart. They know about leaving lists behind, and they know people only smack their foreheads if the list has already been left. They will figure out what the author means. They will not be deeply confused, they will not hurl the book across the room in frustration (unless they are copy editors). But for a short moment, they will sense that something is off. In this situation, that moment will last such an infinitesimally short time that they might not consciously notice it.

In writing more complex stories, however, using simple past where past perfect is called for can create more problematic confusion. Let’s say I’m writing a story about a conversation I had at home with my partner, Inti. See if you can spot the simple past that should be past perfect.

  1. We settled in with a home-assembled cheese plate and discussed our next move.
  2. Real estate was prohibitively expensive in the neighborhoods we liked, and with one mortgage apiece already, it didn’t seem wise to take on a third.
  3. We planned to buy something, but we wondered if renting might be a better idea.

If you said planned needs to be had planned, you’re right. Why? Because readers have just learned we believe it doesn’t seem wise to take on a third mortgage. If the next sentence says we plan to buy something, they will furrow their brows. In this case, using past perfect also serves to emphasize a contrast—we had been going to do X, but we decided instead to do Y.

Even in this example, readers can probably figure out after a beat or two what the narrator means. It doesn’t make sense to plan to buy something immediately after stating that a third mortgage is unwise, so readers’ brains will do a kind of autocorrect, sort it all out and move on.

This is not a good argument for dispensing with past perfect in favor of simple present (not that I would never dispense with past perfect; more on this later). Using the clearest syntax possible is a service to your readers. As David Foster Wallace put it aptly in his 1999 Harper’s essay “Authority and American Usage,” casual misuse of the language, while not being outright deceptive or immoral, nonetheless demands of readers “at least a couple extra nanoseconds of cognitive effort, a kind of rapid sift-and-discard process, before the recipient gets it. Extra work.” 

Being as clear and unambiguous as possible, meanwhile, is “[n]ot just more considerate but more respectful somehow—both of your listener/reader and of what you’re trying to get across.”

Now. It’s true there are valid times to use simple past even when describing events that take place in a past before the main narrative past. Here are a few.

Children’s dialogue. Past perfect is pretty sophisticated, and kids don’t necessarily use it as often as adults. For your child character to say “I had left my list behind” would sound oddly formal and stiff, unless maybe she were a 19th-century eleven year old with a governess.

If the time change is otherwise marked. To go back to my first example, if sentence 3 began, “Before I went to the store,” I could very easily get away with saying “I left my list behind.” (Personally, I would still use past perfect because it “sounds right” to my ear, but it isn’t strictly necessary since readers will not be confused.)

Once we’ve settled into a lengthy story in the past-before-the-past. Let’s say you have a three-page flashback. When you start the flashback, use the past perfect to signpost a time shift. A rule of thumb is to use it two or three times. By then readers will understand when they are. Continuing to repeat the word “had” would only litter the prose with unnecessary guidance.

As with uncountable aspects of language, past perfect usage is changing over time. It’s less common on the internet, in texts and emails. The less common it becomes, the more formal it will sound when it is used, rather the way subjunctive now sounds in English. But it isn’t just a formality. It’s a signal to readers. It has a function, and without it, readers are ever so slightly more adrift in your ocean of words.

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Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Mathina Calliope is a writing coach, teacher, editor, and writer whose coaching is informed by more than twenty years’ experience teaching students ages 9 to 89. Her years in the classroom, plus an MFA in creative nonfiction writing and an M.Ed. in teaching, have given her powerful pedagogical tools to use with her clients. Her words can be found or are forthcoming in the Wall Street Journal, Outside Magazine, Longreads, HuffPost, Real Simple, Streetlight Magazine, and elsewhere. Her memoir and personal essay classes at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC, regularly sell out.

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