I know that English has two past tenses, when the second past (Pluperfect) is farther back in time then the other (Simple Past). Reading stories in English, I've discovered that many stories are narrated by the author in past, with present tenses used only in quotes to convey what a character utters. And if the author wants to narrate what happened before the normal point of reference, he uses Pluperfect. The author adds had before every verb (had given). After a series of such verbs, when I start to see normal verbs in the Past Simple (gave), I understand that the author has ended the digression in the double past and come back to his or her normal point in time.

The following is an example from The Giver (Lois Lowry). I have marked with [start] and [end] the passage when the author digresses in the double past.

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. Frightened was the way [start] he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice.

Instantly, obediently, Jonas had dropped his bike on its side on the path behind his family’s dwelling. He had run indoors and stayed there, alone. [end]

Now, thinking about the feeling of fear as he pedalled home along the river path, he remembered that moment of palpable, stomach-sinking terror when the aircraft had streaked above.

(The last verb had streaked is not the "double past", it tells us what has just happened and has its consequences in the point of reference.)

I have two general questions and one optional (*):

1) When an author digresses in the "double past", does he or she lose the possibility to distinguish which event happened before another? I mean, when you narrate in the present tense, you have three points in time (I don't include the future), when you narrate in past, you have 2 points in time. But in the double past, there is only one that you are in. In this case does the author have to rely only on the context and time expressions such as before and after?

2) When you change narration from the present to the past tense, Present Perfect and Past Simple assume the same form (as the last verb in the quoted passage). For example if in the present I say: "He has seen the plane and now is running away. The same plane attacked their village a year ago." When I put it in the past it becomes: "He had seen the plane and now was running away. The same plane had attacked their village a year ago." As you see, different tenses have assumed the same form. My question: Do I always have to rely on context to distinguish when an event has its consequences in the point of reference, and when it doesn't?

3*) Can you point out some ideas that can enhance my comprehension of the Past Perfect Tense?

  • It's technically not a "tense", but it certainly is a construction, a Perfect construction (have + Past Participle) with a Past tense form of the auxiliary have, instead of a Present tense form (has, have), an Infinitive form (have), or a Present Participle form (having). The Perfect construction has four principal senses, which are shifted back with the frame of reference, as you point out, by the Past tense marker. Commented Jul 7, 2013 at 15:31
  • 3
    As for the narration questions, consult your favorite English authors. If you like it, it must work, right? Steal every writing technique you can from the folks who do it right; that's what they're out there for. Commented Jul 7, 2013 at 15:33
  • You can always use adjectives or adverbs to distinguish times (e. g. earlier). You haven't lost the ability to distinguish times; you've lost the ability to use verb tenses to distinguish times. Commented May 31, 2018 at 14:40
  • And when you put ago into the past, it becomes before (or a similar adverb). So the correct way to put it into the past is: The same plane had attacked their village a year before. And here before tells you the event happened previously. Commented May 31, 2018 at 14:42

2 Answers 2


Linguists call the perfect forms "aspect" not tenses, but that's probably not terribly important here.

1) Yes, the sequence of past/present-perfect forms doesn't imply sequence. If the author needs to specify sequence, he/she needs to change the time.

2) In the quoted passage, the last verb IS past-perfect. What makes you think otherwise? He is remembering the aircraft from earlier. Without "had," it would say that another aircraft flew overhead and triggered his memory.

3) I think you have a very good understanding of the English past/present-perfect. I just think someone confused you with bad information on this one sentence.

  • 1
    Another way to check that the last verb is past perfect is to shift it forward. You get "he remembers that moment of palpable, stomach-sinking terror when the aircraft streaked above." Using "has streaked" isn't possible in that sentence. Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 21:22

Perfects are used to imply that an event is related to other events before / during / after. The tenses look similar but they all convey different meaning about the context of an action / event and usually imply relation to other events.

The participle is the 'action' verb: runs, attacks.

The verb is modified (had, was, has, is, will be, etc.) - with when,

Additional information:

 is it still happening? (progressives - participle has -ing usually) 
 will it happen again?  how long did it last? was it a big deal? how big? has it happened before? is that time still happening? etc.

Perfect tense:

  • simple present perfect:

    • 'He has seen the plane || has + verb,
  • present progressive:

    • and is running away. || then something else happened.
  • past perfect:

    • The same plane had attacked their village a year ago.
  • past perfect progressive:

    • He had been running for hours.

    • He has been running for hours.

  • Right now, we infer past events:

    • He will have been running for hours.
  • those events that happened, became these events that are happening:

    • At this rate, he will be running all the way home!
  • and we predict what will happen at the end of these ongoing events:

    • At this rate, he will have run all the way home!
  • and we expect those events to happen and altogether, the events will mean:

    • At this rate, he will have had been running all day.

Here's a chart.

  • "He will have had been running all day" is not English. Commented Dec 1, 2018 at 1:57
  • Yes, it is, although it mixes up future perfect continuous and past perfect continuous. It should be, He will have been running all day. Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 6:53

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