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Okay, scenario: In a novel set in narrative past tense, there's a sentence, "We had become friends when nobody had liked him and it had seemed no one ever would." Is the past perfect being used correctly? Is "when" perhaps too ambiguous and unhelpful?

To my mind, there are three different times here: 1. the "now"; 2. the moment the boy and girl became friends; 3. the time when the boy had no friends. Put like that, the solution seems simple--use past perfect for the time when the boy had no friends because it occurred before the moment he and the girl became friends. E.g. "We became friends when nobody had liked him and it had seemed no one ever would."

However, because the novel is already set in past tense, I'm afraid using past simple for the moment they became friends, which is in the novel's past, would get confused with the "now," which is also written in past simple. So is it more appropriate to use past perfect for both past events, even though they didn't occur at the same time?

In that case, are all three hads necessary, or can it be used with only the initial verb (became) then understood to also apply to the two others (liked, seemed)? E.g. "We had become friends when nobody liked him and it seemed no one ever would." I swear I see that in novels all the time, but I can't find any sources to confirm it's a thing. Maybe that's a misconception on my part. Or maybe it's just super common to misuse past perfect.

Help :(

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    One had per sentence is plenty: "We became friends when nobody had liked him and it seemed no one ever would." At the time of becoming friends and not just before that, that is when it appeared that nobody like him. Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 16:47
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    I'd rather get the perfect form out of the way early: We had become friends when nobody liked him and it seemed no one ever would. If indeed there's any reason to use a perfect form at all, which for this specific example seems unnecessary unless some additional context justifies it. Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 17:22
  • I agree with FumbleFingers. I see no reason for the past perfect anywhere in that sentence. Can you quote or summarise what comes before it?
    – Shoe
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 17:52
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    I agree with @FumbleFingers in that there may not be a reason at all for the perfect tense. "We became friends when nobody liked him and it seemed no one ever would" strikes me as more concise without losing any meaning.
    – RobJarvis
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 17:52
  • Past perfect is required, yes, because as I said, the narrative tense is already simple past, so anything that occurred in the past of the novel, such as the moment they became friends, needs to be in past perfect. Or at least those are the rules of grammar as I understand them. What I don't know is if the verbs in the subordinate clause (liked, seemed) need to also be in past perfect, or if the fact that the clause was a time before they even became friends changes how the tenses are handled altogether. I know it's confusing, I'm explaining as best I can.
    – Danielle
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 19:43

2 Answers 2

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We had become friends when nobody had liked him and it had seemed no one ever would.

There is a simple answer to your question.

Time, though is a tricky thing. It seems this novel has a narrator as one of its characters. So you are dealing with the following times.

  1. The time at which the narrator is telling the story.
  2. The time(s) in which the story or the events described is set.

The narrative (2) is in the narrator's past. So the dominant tense will be the simple past. But the time at which the two became friends was before that: So it is doubly in the past; and the tense for that is the pluperfect ('had become friends') as in the quoted passage.

But at the time when these two were not yet friends nobody 'liked' them. You might get away with the pluperfect, as in the passage, but strictly the continuous past is what is needed.

Similarly, strictly, 'seemed' is preferable to 'had seemed'.

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In narrative, the past perfect is used to provide background and context to what follows. What follows is usually the main point/event/idea. What follows is in the simple past.

The past perfect provides context and background by referring to actions or states that have been completed.

I had dug the garden and washed[past participle] my car, so I was [simple past] hungry.

You will note that the italicised part simply gives background and context to your being hungry. Your being hungry is the main idea.

Your example is

We had become friends when nobody had liked him and it had seemed no one ever would.

This is pure context and background. I expect it to be followed by

However, things turned out to be quite different.

Simple past.

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