2

As we all know, the past perfect tense is used to indicate an action that takes place before another one.

I ran across this article on The New York Times website today, which begins with these sentences:

The gunshots blasted on and on, 45 in all, until Calvin Cross lay dead in a vacant lot. Mr. Cross, 19, had run away after three Chicago police officers pulled alongside him on a South Side street near his house.

My question is about the use of "had run away" in the second sentence,

Mr. Cross, 19, had run away after three Chicago police officers pulled alongside him on a South Side street near his house.

Others may argue that it should be,

Mr. Cross, 19, ran away after three Chicago police officers had pulled alongside him on a South Side street near his house.

I assume that the author wants to emphasize that the gunshots blasted (recounted in the first sentence ) after Calvin had run away from the policemen.

If that's the author's intention, do you think his second sentence is fine or awkward in structure?

1

Let me suggest another explanation. How do the reporters know that Mr. Cross is dead and that 45 shots were fired at him? The answer is that they have the word of (relatively) disinterested parties -- the medical examiner who determined the cause of death and the investigation team that inventoried the weapons and ammunition of the officers who fired at the victim.

How do the reporters know that the victim ran from the police? They don't. They don't know the victim ran from the police because all they have is the word of the shooters. In the next paragraph they report

The officers, who fired four weapons including an assault rifle that night in May 2011, said that Mr. Cross had fired at them.

In the sentence above, the reporters have backshifted the tense in an indirect report of what would have been the direct quote

The officers said, "Mr. Cross fired at us."

This was untrue, and given the rest of the story quite possibly a lie.

I think the past perfect tense in the sentence about the victim running signals that this is a report from the shooters just like the sentence about the victim shooting at the police.

1

Your first mistake is

As we all know, the past perfect tense is used to indicate an action that takes place before another one.

That's a mighty big assumption. We all don't know the same things about English Grammar and Usage, hence over 63K questions.

Mr. Cross, 19, had run away after three Chicago police officers pulled alongside him on a South Side street near his house.

This, to me, places the action somewhat immediately before another relevant action or involved a consequence spoken of before. Therefore, it's a fine, effectively constructed sentence (if that was the intent.)

I don't know who the others who may think it should be different are, but to my reading,

Mr. Cross, 19, ran away after three Chicago police officers had pulled alongside him on a South Side street near his house.

is not very different grammatically from saying Mr. Cross had bacon and eggs for breakfast, or that Mr. Cross enjoyed crossword puzzles.

Not trying consciously to be a snob (though fully realizing that it certainly has the potential to come across that way), reading English from respected (here meaning usually well written) sources is a good way to learn English, not such a good way to argue how it should be written.

  • Thank you. Your answer served the purpose of my question, which is to seek clarity and weigh opinions and not to argue with the New York Times author nor prove him wrong. – Edville Dec 18 '15 at 5:17
  • In addition, It is interesting to note that 'as we all know' is an idiomatic expression. – Edville Dec 18 '15 at 5:28
  • @Edville - says who/whom? Really? An idiom? Well, I might as well kick the bucket, buy the farm, bite the dust, cash in my chips, give up the ghost and go meet my maker, 'cuz I've heard it all now. – anongoodnurse Dec 18 '15 at 5:28
  • Many authors use that expression. It carries figurative meaning and native English speakers would take it within the context of an idiomatic usage. – Edville Dec 18 '15 at 5:35
  • @Edville - I really hate to argue in comments, but I think you're just plain incorrect. I am a native speaker, and it's not an idiom to my AmE ears, and now I'm done. – anongoodnurse Dec 18 '15 at 5:37
0

The gunshots blasted on and on, 45 in all, until Calvin Cross lay dead in a vacant lot. Mr. Cross, 19, had run away after three Chicago police officers pulled alongside him on a South Side street near his house.

There are four verbs used in the above two sentence which are in bold. The sequence of the actions is to pull, to run, to blast and to lie dead.

Now, you are right with the point that had run away should be changed to ran away and pulled might have to be changed to had pulled because the action to pull took place before the action to run or the two actions might have happened simultaneously.

Then, why would the journalist write that way? He wants to contrast the two actions in the previous sentence, i.e. to blast and to lie which are in the past tense, with the action to run which is in the past perfect tense. That's all. Tenses in English are flexible and doesn't follow the strict sequence of the actions. For example:

The gunshots blasted on and on, 45 in all, until Calvin Cross lay dead in a vacant lot.

should be rephrased to:

The gunshots had blasted or had been been blasting on and on, 45 in all, until Calvin Cross lay dead in a vacant lot.

because the action to blast took place before the action to lie. Why would the journalist not use the past perfect tense in the above sentence? Because nobody would be confused with the sequence of the actions and there is the conjunction until that indicates the sequence pretty well.

Likewise, the journalist didn't have any reason to use had run away as there is the conjunction after. Actually using the past perfect tense could contradict the sequence, but he wanted to contrast the action to run with the two actions in the previous sentence.

The sequence of the four actions is not confusing at all. The tenses that the journalist used make sense. Tenses don't necessarily work in a logical way.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.