What has happened to the past perfect tense?
December 14, 2013 2:42 AM   Subscribe

I've recently noticed an irritating trend in English-language writing: sections that really should be written in the past perfect tense are instead in the simple past tense. I've seen this more in American English than in British English, but that might just be confirmation bias. Is there a reason for this, for example a new style of teaching in schools or universities? And is it really new, or am I just looking for things to get annoyed about?

The example that pushed me to write this question was in this article, linked from the front page:
At the time of the Headroom hack, broadcast signal intrusions were considered a rare phenomenon, limited to small stations with lower power transmissions, and requiring special knowledge and equipment that was estimated to cost up to a hundred thousand dollars.

But the prospect of a new form of pranksterism—or protest, or even terrorism—began to emerge a year and a half earlier, on April 27, 1986.
Surely that should say, "had begun to emerge." The Headroom hack is referred to in the simple past, and the new form of pranksterism emerged before those events, so it should be referred to in the past perfect tense. The British Council has my back there.

I wouldn't mind so much if this was only happening in online articles, but I have read whole novels where the past perfect barely shows its face. One book in particular had a large cast of characters and for each of them, a chapter or two was spent reflecting on the events in their past that had brought them to this point. With everything written in the simple past tense, it was sometimes hard to parse out what was backstory and what was happening in the main plot. This was a thriller, so perhaps this style of writing was intended to make things more exciting?

Any insight on why writers have begun to do this terrible, wrong, awful thing would be appreciated, and any flaws in my own grammar in this question will be put down to Muphry's Law. :)
posted by daisyk to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I agree with you.

In my experience, this is usually a US-English thing. I taught ESL for years, and we taught British English, in which perfect tenses are commonly used. I always have a brief grating moment when reading something that uses a simple tense when a perfect tense is (IMO, and in British English) called for.
posted by Salamander at 2:48 AM on December 14, 2013

Your link says "We can use", not "We must use". An alternate is to explicitly state the sequence of events, which is what the article does: "began to emerge a year and a half earlier".

The past perfect would be acceptable here, but it isn't required to resolve ambiguity.
posted by sbutler at 2:49 AM on December 14, 2013 [8 favorites]

The example given is probably one of the lesser points to demonstrate it, but it is reflective of a general degradation in the use of the English language. People are not learning this tense to the extent that they can use it correctly, as witnessed by the very common and very grating "had went." Yesterday I read of an alcoholic who "had not drank" in two years. And Shepard Smith on Fox News, some years ago, declared "The ship sunk. It just sunk."
posted by yclipse at 3:39 AM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yes.

I have seen my students (US English speakers from Western MA) have more and more trouble with the pluperfect / past perfect in the last ten years. It used to be very easy for them to correctly supply in Latin translations when Latin has the pluperfect tense, but now the vast majority no longer have any qualms writing a sentence such as "I asked yesterday what he did the week before." It grates on my ear, but it is definitely what they say.

It accompanies the death of the participle in the perfect tense in favor of the simple past (they almost always say "have/had wrote" not "have/had written" etc.) and the complete substitution of "would have done" for "had done" in past counter-factuals (e.g. "If I would have known that, I would have helped").

It is not, I assure you, deliberately encouraged by educators (but is really a tiny problem compared to students' other issues producing formal written English). It's language change. That's how they talk, and they apparently do not get enough exposure to those forms with "had" to pick them up correctly and use them comfortably.

If only Latin had not ceased to be taught widely! :)
posted by lysimache at 3:52 AM on December 14, 2013 [14 favorites]

Past perfect is, by and large, passe in American writing. It's not taught in many, if not most, American schools, and its usage in fiction is often considered to be optional. I'm a fiction editor who's worked with over a hundred authors, and my experience is that only a tiny fraction of American authors use it, and those who do tend to heavily into linguistics or language learning. Many editors feel, at this point, that its use is a stylistic choice; some go so far as to say that it's almost never necessary in fiction.

I'm not sure that it's (generally speaking) a degradation of the English language so much as it is a style variation--American English seems to change faster than international or British English, and skews toward defaulting to casual writing and grammar. There's a decent handful of places in which American and British English sort of stare at each other blankly--see also got/gotten, collective nouns, present perfect, and subjunctive mood, all of which I've seen cause similar consternation amongst editors.
posted by MeghanC at 3:55 AM on December 14, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I'm an American and I would have used "had begun to" there as well; it reads awkwardly to me as is. That having been said, if you're seeing this usage quite frequently, then I don't think it's reasonable to call it "wrong", it's just a change. As a descriptivist, there is no such thing as "wrong", there's only what competent users of a language actually use in the wild.

But why do writers use the pluperfect less often? As a total layperson, it seems like languages simplify grammatically over time (or maybe it's easier to notice when structure is lost than when it arises!). Written English certainly seems to be losing some inflection ("whom" is a lot less frequent even in written English now). Little-used constructions, or even less-used ones, can start to disappear entirely.

There are of course other cases when tenses aren't used simply, though; maybe this use of the simple past is an expansion of historical present? What comes after the sentence with 'began to emerge?" If the article moves on to discuss the events in April 1986, maybe it's just a slightly awkward transition; the time period under discussion in that paragraph is now
April 1986, and using the pluperfect for the entire paragraph would distance it too much.

Ah, and one possible reason why it might be more common among American writers: we are pretty strongly encouraged to simplify sentence structure, word choice, etc in the interest of clarity and readability. I have no idea if other English speakers get this too, though.

The Wikipedia article on pluperfect is pretty interesting, and talks about the changes in various tense uses in a few languages over time (notably Greek).

(On preview maybe I should also admit that I did study Latin and learned pluperfect that way, so maybe it's why I want "had" there. )
posted by nat at 3:56 AM on December 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yesterday I read of an alcoholic who "had not drank" in two years.

I see this all the time; in fact I would have said we (US) use the pluperfect more than ever, just not when it's appropriate. People are constantly using it in place of the (present) perfect or simple past.
posted by BibiRose at 4:00 AM on December 14, 2013

Best answer: I've read in a couple of the standard writing advice books that it's awkward to have sentence after sentence in the past perfect, so for flashbacks it's less awkward to write one or two establishing sentences in past perfect and then switch to simple past.

It takes a bit of skill and care to be sure that you're not doing it in a confusing way, but I think if you do it right it's more elegant than a string of "had" s.

It feels like that's what the author of the above paragraph was going for, but without any smooth transition ;it does feel clumsy to me and I'm surprised to see it in professional writing.
posted by Jeanne at 4:25 AM on December 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

"began" seems clearly acceptable to me there, even if it has a different shade of meaning than "had begun to".
posted by deadweightloss at 4:57 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am snippy about grammar and the quote didn't read strangely to me, despite officially being incorrect. It read like journalism, and I think lots of nonfiction books are written to a newspaper stylebook.
posted by escabeche at 5:41 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's pretty common advice these days to be concise, to use fewer words when more aren't necessary. Bet that plays a role.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:49 AM on December 14, 2013 [7 favorites]

In several vernacular traditions, it's common to use what's standardized as "past perfect" or just to insert "had" before a past tense, to signify a range of events when telling a story that occurred in the past before the storytelling event, not just those preceding a simple past within the story itself. I haven't analyzed its nuances, but it is a definite pattern. "We had bought" instead of "we bought," not necessarily *before" any other action. Or "we had went," rather than "we went."

FWIW I don't mourn proper English grammar. Even though I haven't analyzed this vernacular trend, I take it as a given that this is a totally acceptable specific pattern. Language is a living thing, and if a form evolves into predictable patterns among a group of speakers it's not an error. Regular variations in language are called "errors" based on the power position of its speakers.

But it's possible that as the vernacular (and seemingly class-inflected) use of "had - past tense" spreads, the written "proper" use of the past perfect decreases.
posted by third rail at 5:57 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think there's been a blurring of the lines between formal and informal English, ever since informal communications have started happening in writing. We're becoming used to seeing a whole spectrum of formality in writing, instead of only Proper Formal Stuff written by people who have studied Proper Formal Grammar. Writing aimed at audiences without a high level of formal education is written fairly informally, because those audiences know that Proper Formal Writing is not addressed to them. I know people who communicate on Facebook entirely in transliterated spoken English; people who prior to Facebook have probably never written anything more than Christmas cards and shopping lists since school. There's an increasing audience on the internet who are not very literate!

Anyway, I suspect informal speech will always be simpler, and use fewer and less complex tenses. I present to you the following example:

"So I'm sat on the number 42 right, and it's empty right, and this woman gets on and sits like right next to me and she says, she says...... "

I also suspect that informal speech is often more concerned with conveying feelings and emotions, and less with conveying the kind of precise detail that more tenses could provide.
posted by emilyw at 6:12 AM on December 14, 2013

> Is there a reason for this, for example a new style of teaching in schools or universities?

The reason is that people are using verbs differently; i.e., the English language is changing. This has been going on for thousands of years and is not going to stop, so it's a good idea to get used to it. And it does not happen because of teaching in schools or universities; it is a natural and unavoidable process. Children do not learn language from teachers, they learn first from their parents and then, quickly and irrevocably, from their peers. The main influence teachers have is to try to impose a bunch of shibboleths (say it this way, not that way!) that are useful only because the people who will be in charge of hiring the grown-up kids will have had the same shibboleths beaten into them and will expect them to be followed. It's a stupid cycle but it won't change any time soon, so kids have to learn the shibboleths, but they have nothing to do with the grammar of the English language.

> Any insight on why writers have begun to do this terrible, wrong, awful thing

I realize you're being jokey, but seriously, if you want to understand how language works it's important to rid yourself of this way of approaching it and train yourself to think "Huh, that's an interesting change" rather than "Get thee behind me, Satan!" when you see new developments. Otherwise you will wind up boring your friends and relations and writing "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" letters to the editor.
posted by languagehat at 6:12 AM on December 14, 2013 [27 favorites]

Is there such a thing as degradation of a language? I think it's properly called shift. This just seems like another way that UK and US English are moving apart in the same way the Romance languages did even if the common truism remarks they are getting more and more similar due to media. There is also the fact that mass marketed UK and US English in the form of novels or journalism tend to not be the way people actually speak, so how representative of either iteration of the language is suspect.
posted by syncope at 6:19 AM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Two data points.

One: when I was a junior high school student taking German in the mid-1990s, I spent two years of class thinking that German had this bizarre "other" past tense because I did not understand that English also had two forms of the past tense. I used the past perfect tense occasionally when I spoke or wrote, of course, and I'd certainly read books that used it, but I had never encountered it in an academic setting, so I somehow never "noticed" it. I was an A student in English at a fairly rigorous private high school.

Two: Now that I am an adult, I understand the difference between the past perfect and the simple perfect. But I am writing a novel, and figuring out the tenses in some of the flashbacks has been a bitch. I know the "rule" is to keep the tenses consistent, but more than one or two sentences in a row in the past perfect sets my intuitive alarm bells ringing...it just sounds really tangled up and fussy and wrong. I was really glad to read Jeanne's advice, because I'm pretty sure that is the rule that has arisen in terms of practical usage and it deviates from the rule found in the grammar books. (This is does not affect the example you gave, which does read as "wrong" to me. I think most editors would change that sentence and this mistake just slipped through. I wonder if you've been noticing the first thing subconsciously, but then this more egregious error caught your eye.)

This suggests that the use of the past perfect tense is going the way of rule against ending sentences with prepositions: it's going to stick around for a while as a general 'best practice' for writing, but it will become less of a hard and fast rule. There will also probably be situations where "good writing" calls for breaking the rule in the service of clarity or concision.

Sorry if this lawless future is going to be stressful for you. :)
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:57 AM on December 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: languagehat: I totally agree with you, and am seriously not the kind of person who believes in the degradation of the English language. The reasons why I asked this question were to find out if this is a real phenomenon or something I've been imagining, and to find out the driving forces behind it, so I can understand it better and not just react with, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" I am a pedant by nature, but this is something I'm actively working against. :)

This kind of phrasing grates for me because I expect the text to say one thing (from the information embedded in the tense), only to find that it actually says something different. It breaks my reading flow and can reduce the amount of information the text transfers, or make understanding the text more difficult, as with the book I mentioned. There's enough redundancy in my example quote that this isn't an issue there, but to me it still feels awkward. Some people have said they don't share my feeling, and that's fine, of course.
posted by daisyk at 6:58 AM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a writer and editor, I'm one of the big bad guys you can blame for this change. I can tell you exactly why the writer or copyeditor changed this.

These days, the push in style in written American English for newspapers and publications is to express things actively and concisely. Students are certainly taught this in high schools and universities these days, too. I think that's a good thing!

"Had begun to emerge" sounds a little wordy and passive. "Began to emerge" sounds more active. It's four fewer characters, and two fewer syllables. Unless the specific meaning of something calls for the former (and I don't think your example does, and I can't really think of any examples that would), I would always choose the latter.

In fact, I would go one step further than the editor for this piece. I'd change it to "emerged." Something begins as it emerges no matter what... those verbs mean practically the same thing. Why use both of them? It's repetitive, like talking about "beginning to start" something. Just say "starting."
But the prospect of a new form of pranksterism—or protest, or even terrorism—emerged a year and a half earlier, on April 27, 1986.
Much better. That's even more concise and active, and it doesn't lose the root of what the author wants to express. Now, if we could just get rid of that lousy parenthetical...

American English is particularly growing more concise over time, by the way... and whether the Brits like it or not, anything we do seems to make it to your shores sooner or later. In the States, speaking in a less concise way has always branded someone as professorial or lofty. In the day of Twitter and texting, this is even more true. Embrace the change! It's not stopping any time soon.
posted by Old Man McKay at 7:27 AM on December 14, 2013 [12 favorites]

Best answer: According to Theodore Bernstein's The Careful Writer, the past perfect is optional when you mention a specific point in time, e.g. "a year earlier, on April 27, 1986." You only need the past perfect when there's no other detail in the sentence to explain the different times in the past. Also, past perfect starts to seem too stilted if you use it at every possible opportunity.
posted by John Cohen at 7:33 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

(I somehow feel the need to write this in more formal English than I normally do.)

I consider myself a journeyman grammarian: I got decent grades in English and Grammar in school, and I think I know when to use a colon vs. a semi-colon.* I'm not an English major, but I worked on student newspapers and do a lot of writing at work.**

In scanning down the thread so far, I see a lot of good answers, but I think John Cohen has hit the nail on the head. Past perfect tense is important when comparing two events in the past, and trying to express their timing relative to each other. "Kennedy was trying to mend fences among Texas political factions at the time of his assassination." Well, no, Kennedy had been trying, i.e. the political efforts more literally preceded the instant of his assassination by some days and weeks. It's a very subtle difference, and one that really alters the sense in some cases and not in others. Moreover, I think it's subjective as to whether it does.

In the OP's example, I read it and couldn't see the problem at all, although I could see where others might. In my Kennedy example, it MAY be a little more obvious, but most people would probably understand what I meant in the first place. I can think of examples where it might be critical, and in those cases I expect unless a writer was totally incompetent s/he would automatically use past perfect, or recast the sentence: Solo had been reaching for his blaster when ____ means something different than Solo was reaching for his blaster when _____

If the difference isn't critical, I agree with the others who say past perfect tends to get clunky, and clunky constructions tend to get simplified, for better or worse. If we're trying to be inclusive, for example, we have to communicate "he or she," not just "he," and I find myself all the time saying "If someone needs ___, they have to do ___." Should be "he or she," not "they," and I try to do better when I'm writing formally, but simple wins, especially when speaking.

Another trend in history/biography that bothers me, while I'm on the soapbox, is use of present tense. I know they're trying to draw us into the story and create suspense where there is none (because the events happened a long time ago and it's a done deal), but every time I read "Roosevelt has to unite several elements of his party..." or the like, I automatically think "No, he doesn't; he's dead."

*did I get it right?
** and not just on Metafilter...
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:11 AM on December 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

Jeanne and Old Man McKay have the conflict in a nutshell. In lengthy flashbacks, it just gets incredibly awkward and wordy to stay in the pluperfect/past perfect, so I think it's totally legitimate to try to find a way to transition out of that to simple past tense. It has to be done carefully, though. Some editors I work with at times seem to have almost a phobia of these more nuanced wordings, and do everything they can to avoid the pluperfect/past perfect in favor of "more active" constructions. It's one of journalism's many shibboleths. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't, and I have to nudge a "had" back in there for meaning and clarity.
posted by limeonaire at 8:35 AM on December 14, 2013

I'm curious whether this is easy to find outside of journalism settings.

In the journalistic world, word count is king. If your piece on Max Headroom is supposed to be 1200 words but it comes in at 1230, you start combing every sentence looking for words to cut. Converting compound tenses to simple tenses where it doesn't detract from the meaning is an easy way to do that.

Personally, I think "Had begun... a year and a half earlier" sounds better, but both make sense. And if eliminating "had" helped the author get the piece published, that works for me.
posted by Sara C. at 9:03 AM on December 14, 2013

Pro writer/author here. Both tenses work (by which I mean effectively convey meaning) in your example, as well as in most others. Past perfect would certainly be more academically rigorous, but it lends a somewhat starchy tone (as did my use of "somewhat"). And non-academic writing is, of course, about effective communication rather than finicky rigor, so one's choice of tone is paramount.

As for whether it's "correct" usage, I side with Stephen Fry (and, for that matter, most modern lexicographers) in the acceptance that language is anarchic, and will morph endlessly in spite of all tongue-clucking by any one group wishing it to stay any one way.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:57 AM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a long-term trend in English towards dispersing the information conveyed in grammatical forms. We already have auxiliaries for much of the workload in tenses instead of inflection, but editors tend to treat auxiliaries as stylistic clutter.

I understand why this is described as "concise" from a journalistic perspective, although I'm not convinced that's the right word for it. (Finnish verb construction is concise.) It's more like applying aerodynamic treatment to verb structures, which can sometimes lead to compromises elsewhere. It's more acceptable to add a sentence that explicitly states a timeline than to use tenses that imply it.
posted by holgate at 10:05 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think this is part of the slide toward everything in present tense. Which probably took hold with "You are There."

Many true-crime shows are difficult to follow because they phrase things in this way: "But the prospect of divorce — or separation —became part of their lives in April. It is June and lovely weather in Rancho Cucamonga, although April moves out the house while Marvin is soundproofing the crawl space and telling co-workers that everything is fine but investigators learn coworkers don't believe him."

Take time and give the narrative context, lazy Americans and Dateline NBC. That's what I have said, am saying, and will say.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:09 PM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

When language patterns shift (as they always do, and always will), the changes perennially strike some people as stemming from "laziness". You can find the very same tongue clucking in accounts from pedants in ancient Rome, complaining about how this new generation is shooting Latin all to hell.

With a few millennia of perspective, you'd think we'd all be clear enough to perceive that usage changes don't stem from laziness, or degradation of intelligence or education, but reflect the inherently dynamic nature of human communication. After 5000 years of nonstop supposed deterioration of writing skills, the fact that we're still able to communicate at all disproves the fallacy...or so one might think.
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:33 PM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I disagree, Quisp Lover. Erik Larson, William Langewiesche, and other writers illustrate the difference between lazy reporting and good writing.

The pattern daisyk objects to affects our ability to communicate. If you want to talk about how people reacted and discuss historical events, then being able to use tense thoughtfully is not negotiable.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:58 PM on December 14, 2013

So the OP's example passage (and similar writing) was undecipherable to you? Without proper tensing, you're at a loss as to the meaning? If so, and if enough others feel the same, then writers will naturally, over time, be more careful about the tense lapse. When communication breaks down, those who do better tend to win out.

But if you understood it perfectly well, as I suspect you did, then this is strictly an aesthetic preference, which has to do entirely with you.

As a writer, I choose my tone - which is the product of tense and other usage choices - in order to create a rapport with a given readership. I do realize there are readers who feel as you do, and sometimes I play to them...though more often I do not. Either way, so long as I'm communicating effectively, and establishing a rapport with the readership I'm aiming to connect to, then I'm a good writer whether I fit your bill or that of the vastly larger readership which finds fastidious past perfect tensing stuffy and ostentatious.

I agree: laziness is bad. But breaking rules you hold dear doesn't reflect laziness or stupidity. It just means that others hold those rules less dear. It's a mistake to assume everyone shares one's aesthetic.

Again, pedants have complained bitterly about usage degradation for millennia, yet we still manage to communicate perfectly well with one another. That's not how degradation works, so there's obviously a fallacy at work.
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:34 PM on December 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

lysimache: "If only Latin had not ceased to be taught widely! :)"

Latin is the reason why so many bizarre, artificial rules were gamed into the English language as it is taught in the first place. For example:

Why not split infinitives? Because Latin infinitives cannot be split (Latin infinitives are single words; English infinitives are two words).

Those rules are thankfully going by the wayside. Contrary to the beliefs of many language prescriptivists such as the OP and yourself, English is essentially returning to an older form by these changes, instead of abandoning its past.

/Wys are often the wayes of unlerned tonges.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:14 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Timely -- there is an AP story on my local paper's website today on a hospital shooting in Reno. He killed a doctor and them himself apparently because of frustration at ongoing pain from a 2010 operation; the headline reads "Hospital Gunman Had Botched Vasectomy, Say Neighbors". Omitting that second "had" puts a weird and inappropriate comic spin on the scenario.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:44 AM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

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