When reading Waugh's 'Vile Bodies' I came across the following sentence: "It was the first time that the party was given in an airship". It would seem to me that in the second clause there should have been past perfect. Could anyone possibly elucidate whether such usage is peculiar to the day and age when the sentence was written or such grammatical pattern is also acceptable nowadays?

  • 3
    A little more context would be helpful, but I'm assuming that 'the party' means that this particular party was say an annual event (at the time). Without prior context licensing anything else, the only temporal reference is the time of the party / its first being held on an airship, so past simple makes more sense. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 5 '17 at 8:59
  • @Edwin Ashworth. It certainly wouldn't have been incorrect to use the past simple, though the pluperfect would certainly have been more likely. But as you say, more context would have been helpful. – WS2 Sep 5 '17 at 9:05

Past perfect tense is used to denote an action completed prior to some past point of time specified or implied. In such a context, the earlier action in the past perfect tense and the later one in the simple past tense are expressed to maintain the sequence of tenses. Here there is no earlier or later time reference. At a certain point of time in the past, a party was given in an airship and such an event was for the first time - both the sequence and event occurred at the same time!

  • I was confused by the analogy with the phrases like "it's the first time I've had a party on an airship" where the second clause is sort of "one step down" tense-wise. Or is it in fact possible to say "it's the first time I have a party on an airship"? – gerseyli Sep 5 '17 at 10:49
  • You say that "the past perfect tense is used to denote an action completed prior to some past point of time specified or implied". The OP's example clearly implies that there was such a past time, since otherwise why refer to this as being the first time on an airship? In any event, any native speaker will confirm that "had been given" is perfectly idiomatic in this context. – WS2 Sep 5 '17 at 13:09
  • @WS2: If the OP's sentence implies such a past time, the earlier past action should be expressed in the Past Perfect Tense. But where is that time reference? If we rephrase the sentence as "for the first time a party was given in an airship*, the simple past is the apt tense. Suppose that the first party was already given and later at a point of time in the past someone mentioned about it, the verb form to talk about it should be had been given. That is what I meant. – mahmud k pukayoor Sep 5 '17 at 14:17
  • @mahmudkoya I'm afraid I cannot explain it in terms of a rule, as I am a native speaker, and that is not the way I learned to speak English. However what I can tell you is that "It was the first/second/third/etc time that..." usually calls for the pluperfect, but the simple past is possible. – WS2 Sep 5 '17 at 17:30
  • If the sentence was "It is the first time that the party was given in an airship", there wouldn't be a doubt at all, because it says that the 'first time' is still valid. When we say "It was the first time that the party was given in an airship", it may imply a sense like, "Look, it was the first time that the party was given in an airship, but now it no longer is." – Ram Pillai Feb 11 at 6:58

The party was given on an airship implicitly refers to multiple parties occurring at different times, so the past perfect would have sounded over-specific (and depending on the context, somewhat strange).

For example, if you start with

  • In 1994 the World Cup was hosted by the U.S.A.
  • In 1998 it was hosted by France.
  • In 2002 it was jointly hosted by Korea and Japan.

You can follow with:

  • Two thousand and two was the first year that the World Cup was hosted in Asia.

  • It was the first time that the final was played in such a remote time zone.

However, if your focus moves to a subject where relative time is important, then the precision of the tenses can help in conveying the writer's meaning, e.g.

  • Brazil, always a favorite, had been expected to do well going into 2002. They defeated France, which had won in 1998 and still had hopes of victory. It was the first time that Brazil had done so well in an Asian venue.

Novels are not always good examples, since the writer may be using the choice of tenses to bring you psychologically closer to (or further from) the event being decribed.

On the other hand, a more journalistic article, like the Wikipedia article on the World Cup, will use a "nearer" tense to give the reader a sense of being present in the action being described, and then finish that section with a past perfect to indicate that it's time to move on. Sometimes a readable description of familiar history is worth a second look.

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