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I’m writing a short prose piece for an academic audience and need to know whether the following sentence sounds right, especially its first clause:

What he had just said, especially that final sentence, really enlightened me.

The context here is that I’m recounting a story in the past where person A has just told me something interesting, and the quoted sentence describes its effect on me.

I do believe the use of had in the sentence above is correct. Could anyone explain why is it correct if it is, or if it is not, then why it does not sound right to use this way?

  • There's nothing wrong with it as it stands. – Hot Licks Nov 6 '16 at 15:23
  • I've tried to edit your question into what I believe you are actually asking here: why it’s ok to use a past perfect construction here rather than a plain past. Please look through these questions for a possible duplicate that may answer you. I saw quite a few likely candidates, but I can’t tell which aspect of this matter is the one which concerns you. “Why is this right/ok/grammatically correct/sounds good?” questions with no further explanation or background and research are a bit broad for us. – tchrist Nov 6 '16 at 16:40
  • @tchrist thanks for the comment. The verification of the use of the past perfect is only secondary. I was originally more concerned with the formation of the sentence. – user98937 Nov 7 '16 at 14:31
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Better looking is, What he had just said—especially the last sentence—really enlightened me. The em-dashes indicate a break in the flow of the sentence, whereas the commas seem to be used appositively, which, while not incorrect, is not strong enough (it seems to me). Alternatively, parentheses [brackets in UK] could be used in place of em-dashes.

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    I don't think that the structure of the sentence is correct here. It doesn't read well in my opinion. However, that is just my opinion. Yes, brackets could work better. "It really enlightened me, what he just said (especially the last sentence)." Something like that, maybe. – CJF Nov 6 '16 at 14:59
  • @CJF do you agree with Handelman's use of em-dashes though? – user98937 Nov 6 '16 at 15:00
  • Yes I think they work well, just not in the structure he has put them. I personally would not use dashes. However, they do work. – CJF Nov 6 '16 at 15:02
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    She asked whether it was grammatically correct (prior to my clarifying edit), not whether its punctuational artifacts were optimally written. Becuase answer addresses orthography not grammar (where grammar comprises syntax or morphology and excludes spelling and capitalization and punctuation and indentation and spacing); it therefore does not answer the question. That said, I can see your point that the em dashes might serve here. – tchrist Nov 6 '16 at 16:22
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    This answer provides the perfect use for em dashes. :) – Lambie Nov 6 '16 at 18:52
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It is correct because "had said" is the past perfect, which is the best use for the intended meaning.

"Has said" would be the present perfect.

The perfect aspect focuses on the result of the action rather than on the action itself. Use the present perfect when the action was completed in the past but it is important that the result is in the present.

He has said it three times so it must be true!

Use the past perfect when the result that is in focus was important in the past.

He had said he would do it, but now I think he doesn't want to

In this above example the result of the 'saying' is the expressed intention to do it, which is no longer current so the result of the action is in the past.

Because your context is a past tense narrative, the result of the saying (in this case, it leads to the enlightening) should also be placed in the past tense so the past perfect is appropriate.

  • Your answer is very clear and well-explained. I would normally put your answer down as the correct one ('ticking' it), but i was originally more concerned with the formation of the sentence. My question with regards to the use of the past perfect was only secondary; the admins changed my question to make it seem like I was more concerned with the latter. – user98937 Nov 7 '16 at 14:33
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With past perfect, it helps to draw yourself a timeline. In your situation, there are three points on the timeline:

  • leftmost point: What he had just said, especially that final sentence

  • rightmost point: now (when you are writing your observation)

  • point somewhere in the middle between those two points: really enlightened me.

If there were only two points on the timeline, i.e. if now and the moment of feeling enlightened, coincided, then you wouldn't need the past perfect. The past perfect essentially tells us there are three separate points on the timeline.

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I would restructure the sentence like this:

It really enlightened me, what he has just said. Especially, the last sentence.

With regards to the use of the word 'had' - I believe that it is correct, however 'has' works better. The use of 'had' seems to me like the person is denying saying something and you are confirming that they have in fact said something. 'Has', reinforces to the reader that he has said something. With that said, the use of 'had' is still fine.

Also, 'had' refers to something further in the past. 'Has' sounds to me like it is more in the immediate past, if that makes sense.

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    I think this construction is awkward, and in addition, there is no verb in the second sentence. – David Handelman Nov 6 '16 at 14:53
  • The immediate past argument in favour of 'has' is quite understandable. I stuck to 'had' because the word 'just' sort of suggests its recency relative to when I felt 'enlightened'. – user98937 Nov 6 '16 at 15:12
  • @David Handelman Making it a fragment; these have been discussed here on quite a few occasions, and given a partial thumbs-up. I've no problem with this one. Other than the comma. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 6 '16 at 16:40
  • Unfortunately this answer simply expresses opinions. ELU strives to provide authoritative answers backed up with citations and references that explain why the answer is correct. – Jim Nov 6 '16 at 19:24
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I think that the past simple is more grammatically correct. It should read: What he just said, especially that final sentence, really enlightened me. In other words, I don't see why you would use the past perfect here. That tense is used when you have one action that happened before a different action in the past such as When I arrived home my father had already cooked dinner. By contrast, here, the two actions are really simultaneous--He said something that enlightened you (as you heard it).

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