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?

  • 2
    "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
  • I see the logic of B. "Four weeks earlier" establishes the past, which seems to make the past perfect unnecessary. For example, the construction might occur in this context: "I was walking around my apartment, thinking about Greta. She called me weeks earlier, and now I remembered what she told me." Most of the responses seem to skirt whether this is grammatically acceptable. – Zan700 Oct 25 '16 at 16:45

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.

  • 1
    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.


There is nothing essentially wrong with using the perfect past, where it is needed. However, used in fiction, it is easy to overuse or misuse. Three uses are common; introduce new past events, flash back, and referring to past events already discussed in the story,

Introduce new past events

I had met him last June, and was eager to catch up again.

The problem with this is that a single statement does not give a detailed description. You are summarizing a whole meeting in a single sentence (referred to as telling) instead of describing in detail (showing). In fiction showing is usually preferred to telling, because of the greater reader engagement (but not always, as showing reduces the pace of the story).

To summarize the reader may be left with insufficient detail about the past event and feels "had".

Flash back

Had may be used a "flash back" about a past event.

The shark came towards me. I could see the razor sharp teeth and new that I was about to die. The whiteness of the teeth reminded me of a visit to the supermarket I had made last Tuesday. Bla bla bla about shopping. But I would never know how good the next sale was, as the shark bit me cleanly in half.

This kind of flash back breaks the flow of the story. The reader also does not know when the flash back will end. Placing the flash back in its own scene may be a better idea.

To summarize, the reader can easily become confused by your flash back and feel "had".

Referring to past events

If you are simply referring to past events that you have already covered previously in the story, then the use of "had" is usually fine.

Using "had" forces the reader to refer backwards in time which is always going to slow the pace of the story.

Overuse of "had" can lead your writing an archaic, or even a slightly false feel.

As for all words, the word "had" and the use of the perfect past has to be justified by the benefits it brings to your story. Use wisely.

protected by NVZ Jan 20 '17 at 14:21

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