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As I understand, past perfect is used to express an action that had happened before something else in the past. But in the paragraph I came across, there appeared past perfect progressive in the middle of nowhere. Please refer to the paragraph below.

In the popular movie Good Will Hunting, a janitor working at MIT, one of the best universities in America, solves a complicated math problem that was written on a board by a professor. The janitor, Will Hunting, had been studying mathematics on his own. The professor, Gerald Lambeau, realizes that Will has a very special talent. In the following scene, he explains the situation to another professor, Sean.

To me, it sounds more right to say "has been studying" because it is describing something that started in the past and extends to the present point("solves"). Can anybody explain how past perfect progressive is possible in this paragraph?

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The past viewpoint time is established by the past tense relative clause that was written on a board by a professor. WH had been studying math before that time, so even though the description is written in historic present (solves, realizes, has, explains), the event described is in the past, and things that happened before that reference time and continued on to or past it are OK in past perfect. Of course, if you only say written on a blackboard, then there's no past reference time, since participles like written and working are tenseless. So present perfect would be OK, too. –  John Lawler May 8 '13 at 0:51
    
Thank you for your answers. I understand your point and the notion of "historic present" is very interesting and helpful. Just one thing, do you still think "had been studying" is OK or makes more sense even if there is only a participle ("written") left in the given sentence? –  Cho May 8 '13 at 3:10
    
Sure. The distinction is mostly irrelevant, and the only difference is the positioning of the story teller as seeing the past events and recalling the past before that, or seeing the present and simply referring to a past sequence. There isn't much difference there, so there's no point worrying about it. –  John Lawler May 8 '13 at 3:18
    
I got it. Thank you. It was very helpful. –  Cho May 8 '13 at 4:02
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1 Answer

I suspect this is an amateur plot summary.

Just as it is conventional (but by no means obligatory) to narrate histories and “serious” fictions in the past tense, it is conventional (but, again, not obligatory) to narrate the plots of dramas and fictions in the present tense—what John Lawler follows many grammatical authorities in calling the “historical present”.

A writer practised in this convention has no difficulty maintaining tensual consistency and writing

In the popular movie Good Will Hunting, a janitor working at MIT, one of the best universities in America, solves a complicated math problem that has been written on a board by a professor. The janitor, Will Hunting, has been studying mathematics on his own. The professor, Gerald Lambeau, realizes that Will has a very special talent. In the following scene, he explains the situation to another professor, Sean.

But students and casual writers* often stumble when called upon to narrate in the present tense. They feel a strong conventional pressure to tell a serious story in the past tense, and now and then, particularly when time relationships are not straightforwardly linear, they fail to resist this pressure and slip unconsciously into past-tense constructions.

What you see in this paragraph is just such a slip. Your author veers into past reference at was written, when he must back his story up to embrace the prior writing of the problem; remains in the past through the past perfect progressive construction you note; and does not recover until his narrative resumes its linear course with Prof. Lambeau's realization.

The answer, I fear, is simply that this is a mistake.


* Even highly educated professionals writing outside their own professional domains—look at a couple of plot summaries from this site, written by a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry.

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Thank you for your answer. Just one thing, your answer sounds logical to me, a non-native speaker of English, but a native English speaking friend of mine says "had been studying" still sounds more natural than "has been studying." As a NS, do you feel the same way? –  Cho May 8 '13 at 3:07
    
@Cho As John Lawler points out, a context for had been is established by the previous mistake, was written. May I ask what your source for the paragraph is? It does not look like pro work to me. –  StoneyB May 8 '13 at 3:14
    
It is actually from the textbook I use in my reading and writing class. I heard it was made in a hurry, though. –  Cho May 8 '13 at 4:01
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