Before he could shoot I knocked the gun out of his hand, and the next instant had kicked it into the sea.

(my emphasis)
The Lighthouse on Shivering Sand, J S Fletcher (1865–1935) Gutenberg Australia

The last part "had kicked it into the sea"

This is obviously not prior to the preceding actions. This action happens after the preceding actions.

But the past perfect tense is used here?

Is it possible? If so, to what effect?

  • This professional translator explains that in this case the past perfect explains that this is to emphasis the surprise of the past event. Or that it finished very quickly..But this is the first time for me. – user41481 Oct 19 '13 at 12:21
  • This is from a book so no sources that I can point to online. – user41481 Oct 19 '13 at 12:22
  • Found the source. There's a bit missed out in your quote, apparently. – Andrew Leach Oct 19 '13 at 12:33
  • @kih1930 What your translator says is another way of saying whatever I said in the answer since, the fact that the past perfect tense is used, implies that the action of kicking occurred before the expiry of the preceding "event", the next instant, hence is indicative of the emphasis laid on the speed with which kicking occurred. – stochastic13 Oct 19 '13 at 14:06
  • So you mean this nuance implies that "kicking" occured before "knocking"? But this is not exactly what happened and that it is a way to exaggerate the fact that "kicking" happened very close to the moment that "knocking" occurred? – user41481 Oct 19 '13 at 14:09

Probably, the action prior to which, the action in your emphasized phrase occurred, (because of which past perfect tense is used) is "the next instant", that is, before the next instant (was over), "I had kicked it into the sea". In this way the use of past perfect tense can be justified in that, the action for which it is used occurred prior to the expiry of the preceding event.

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  • 1
    Exactly. It's a resultative PaPf which invokes the action of kicking to account for the fact that the next instant it was in the sea. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 19 '13 at 13:41

The (no matter just how great) translator gave you a subpar explanation.

The tenor of this sentence (regardless of its belonging to a literary piece) is conversational, and as such, the sentence happens to be part of English. But if the author intended it (he didn't) to be grammatically cracking, he failed. The error is not to be found in the predicate, though.

First, the predicate kick into is correctly used in the perfect instead of the simple aspect. For the reality of the story, the effect of the momentary action of kicking the adversary's gun is definitely not momentary, because after being disarmed, the antagonist becomes incapable of ending the protagonist's life! That's one of the raisons d'etre of the perfect aspect: to covey the lasting importance of the action's effect. It's not only that I kicked his gun into whatever; I have kicked it into whatever and now the effect of that is most definitely felt: I can now much more easily fight for survival.

Second, the past tense has correctly been chosen over the present tense, because the narrator is recounting events, not reporting them as they unfold. Thus, tense + aspect —> past + perfect —> Past Pefect. So far so good.

But thirdmost, the temporal adverbial phrase "the next instant" is a momentary one. You cannot have a time-effect of an action of a perfect verb squeezed into merely a point on a timeline. To have a grammatically valid sentence, the time of that adjunct should be lengthened, however little or much, to coincide with the predicate:

But before he could shoot, I knocked it out of his hand, and by the next instant had kicked it clean over the edge of the rock into the sea.

In this case, the by doesn't lengthen the time much: the action starts at a certain instant and already by the next instant, the effect is "had." Still, the time is no longer momentary; we at least now have two instants. That can no longer be represented by a single point on a timeline.

Again, that'd be a Standard English sentence, but for a literary work, Fletcher's sentence is perfectly standard.

I have just now read Stoney's comment, so allow me this cop-out:

The adverbial phrase "the next instant" might also be understood as a radical ellipsis of "the situation in the next instant was such that," which wouldn't require a by, so the sentence might, after all, be perfectly grammatical.

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since everything ("Before he could shoot I knocked the gun out of his hand") happened in past "the next instant" in referring to the event in past with an "and" ( so it continues ) followed by the past perfect "had kicked it into the sea". Very much possible

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