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The past perfect serves a purpose: When describing things that happened in the past, it allows us to discuss things that happened before (i.e., in the past’s past). However, a procession of had, had, had makes writing sound clumsy and labored, especially in a narrative. I treat past perfect similar to constructions using that: Unless it changes the meaning of a sentence, toss it out.

A: She had called me weeks earlier, and now I remembered what she had told me.

B: She called me weeks earlier, and now I remembered what she told me.

A is strictly correct grammar, but weeks earlier already implies that the phone call happened before my remembering it, so I would favor simple past tense (B). Am I correct, or did I go overboard in my attempt to avoid the past perfect?

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"Unless it changes the meaning…": usually it does. Your sentences A and B don't mean the same. The "now" in A seems to refer to the time being narrated (as evidenced by "remembered"), so "had called me…" serves a useful purpose: it is indeed the past's past as you said. It is hard to interpret B the same way; "she called me weeks earlier" is just a simple statement of the past, and "now" seems to refer to the actual current time (despite "remembered", which seems almost wrong). –  ShreevatsaR Mar 10 '11 at 9:57

2 Answers 2

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I don't think there is anything wrong with using the past perfect when it is needed. The first sentence is correct while the second one is confusing. It has two moments in time--weeks earlier and now--mixed up because the same tense is being used for both of them.

You can cut the extra had out of sentences like this:

They had climbed the mountain, had planted their flag, and had sent a message by the time I got there.

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Right. B is confusing and should be avoided. Though, a whole page of past perfect might read so badly that it's better to use the past tense and mark the transition from "past" to "past past" some other way. For example, "I thought back to when I had first laid eyes on this dame. [two-line break] I was reading a cheap novel when she burst into my office. She was tall, proud, and had the kind of legs..." –  Jason Orendorff Mar 17 '11 at 16:10
Beware: what you propose in your answer ("cutting extra had"), is correct but is not a change of tense, rather an ellipsis of a common auxiliary verb, and appropriate in such an enumeration of actions. –  ogerard Apr 13 '11 at 8:25
@ogerard: Uh-huh.. Right. A change of tense is not appropriate unless there is a change in time frame. You can't go cutting out hads all over the place unless they're superfluous. –  Tragicomic Apr 14 '11 at 8:43

I think it is normal for informal conversation. But epistolary genre likes classic grammar.

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