Why the past isn’t always perfect

One of my favourite ways to edit my own work is to remove a bunch of pesky “hads” that sneak in when I’m not paying attention. Not the really important ones like, “I had fifty dollars.” I’m talking about the unnecessary ones I throw in sometimes because I think I need them. You know the ones: “I had lost my wallet,” or, “My boss had been arrested and brought to the police station.” It’s called the “past perfect”, and it’s a tricky beast. The trick, of course, is knowing when you need it and when you don’t.

Where do they come from, anyway?

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary calls the past perfect (or pluperfect) a grammar tense “denoting an action completed prior to some past point of time specified or implied, formed in English by had and the past participle, as: he had gone by then.”

Put another way: there was this thing that finished happening, and we want to tell you about it in relation to this other thing that happened after. The word “had” gives us a signal about how these events are related in time, a clue we would miss if the sentence was written in simple past tense.

So from the example above, we know that something happened: he went.

And we know he did that before a specific time: by then.

And so: He had gone by then.

When do we need the “had”?

But let’s add another detail: He had gone to the store by then.

As long as we have “by then” as a point of reference, we need the past perfect. We couldn’t say, “He went to the store by then.” But if the story was different, we might just say, “He had gone to the store.” Without a specific or implied point of time, we don’t need the had. We can just say, “He went to the store.” Crisper, yes?

These hads crop up where we don’t need them, often in sneaky ways that are hard to catch, and they gum up perfectly good sentences.

Irregular verbs like “to be”, which turns from “it was” to “it had been” are especially messy. They crop up in storytelling and flashbacks, because we’re trying to set a scene or mood. How about: “It was my first day on the job, and there had been a goodbye lunch for the person I replaced.” The had been is awkward, and makes the reader wonder, did the lunch still happen? Unless the lunch is important to the rest of the story, it would be cleaner to say “… there was a goodbye lunch …” and move on to more important things.

What’s the big deal?

In a single sentence, you might not mind, but chronically missing or unnecessary clues can make it hard to follow a series of events.

How about: “She had been talking about how she had needed to get the furnace repaired.” As a writer, you might want to keep the first had (especially if her conversation was interrupted by the furnace breaking down), but it might be just as good—or even better—to say, “She talked about how she needed to the get the furnace repaired,” or even, “She talked about needing to repair the furnace.” And there’s the double-hads: “I had had a headache.” It might be accurate, but it’s hard to follow and it might not add value to your story.

So who cares? If you’re writing a report for your boss or client, you want to be convincing. If you’re writing a memo to employees, you want to be understood. And if you’re writing a novel or a how-to manual, you want your reader to stay awake.

So what do I do about it?

As a writer, you don’t need to delete the hads with wild enthusiasm, but you should ask yourself: Is this a helpful sign post for the reader, or does it make things harder for the reader to follow?

Understanding how to use the past perfect will add clarity to your writing, no matter who your audience is.