Monday, 13 February 2012

The past perfect

Which of the verb forms is the least useful?

This may sound like a strange question, but there is a sense with ESP generally, and BE specifically, that language must submit to calculations of utility and expediency.

If you teach IELTS, for example, reported speech is a luxury item but the passive is essential.

Thought of in these terms, the past perfect seems a candidate ripe for omission in a crowded, time-conscious schedule.

 In his seminal book The English Verb, Michael Lewis restricts his discussion of it to little more than a sentence.

It is less useful, it seems, even than the future perfect, and that's pretty low down the useful list already.

In the context of the grammar-lite BELF discourse we are moving towards, the past perfect is a clumsy, wind-up gramophone  in a world of sleek iPods.

Partly, this could be because we generally use it to avoid ambiguity, but that ambiguity only arises if we are sloppy to begin with.

Instead of stating they had eaten when I arrived, it can be simply said that they ate before I arrived.

The correct adverbial cuts out the confusion and dispenses with any need for the past perfect at all.

So, it's a sentence-bloating, learner-messing waste of time.

Or is it?

 I have to admit that in recent weeks it has become a hot topic in these parts, and the discussion has shown me that far from just being the 'past of the past' there are more nooks and crannies in the past perfect than in your average imperial French palace.

Of the most use, certainly for report writing and boardroom apologies, is the past perfect of reporting verbs to express an unfulfilled desire.

I had hoped to have arrived before the meeting was over sounds so much more profound than I'm sorry I'm late.

Elsewhere, in Rules, Patterns and Words, Dave Willis expresses his mystification at another of the past perfect's features when he states that he is 'quite unable to provide a satisfactory explanation why I opened the door when the postman had knocked is a most unlikely sentence of English'.

If the past perfect really was just the past of the past, it wouldn't be strange, but (as the exam writer's favourite collogation before + past perfect suggests) there is more to this tense than just temporal order.

It is also used to stress the independence causally speaking of one action from another.

In the sentence When I sold my shares, the company stock nosedived there is a causal relation that is avoided by use of the past perfect in When I had sold my shares, the company stock nosedived.

This might prove useful for any BE learners facing  judicial hearings.

Finally, there is the sense of anticipation that the past perfect enables, which is perfect for sophisticated social English.

This comes about when you use the past perfect on its own, causing it to disport itself with deep  grammatical longing.

They had eaten, for example, dangles before you the expectation of the past simple event to which it is secretly but mysteriously anchored.

For those learners who enjoy telling anecdotes, this is a subtlety they might enjoy manipulating, getting their listeners interested in finding out what happens next.

I suspect that these latter two points are ones that only proficient speakers might wish to attend to.

Indeed, I harbour a suspicion that the past perfect comes too early in most structural syllabuses anyway, and that for BELFists it is more effective if they can employ a range of adverbials.

Nevertheless, let us not forget that there are a growing number of proficient users out there who would like to be able to express themselves with the same degree of subtlety they employ in their own language.

To that end, I would like to propose that the past perfect, far from being the redundant dullard of the verb world, is actually a little gem.

(Image: Stella Newman)


  1. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for this wonderful post. I think it raises excellent questions. I never address the past perfect unless a question is asked about it directly. Even then, I'm looking at the clock because usage is fairly low and there's better ROI to be had in other areas of language (yet I write the equally arcane 'to be had' without batting an eyelid).

    Forgetting ELF and BELF for a moment, in my context, I'm constantly streamlining my input as I have corporate learners for one week and they're paying a lot of money. ROI trumps all.

    But, as you demonstrate here, the nuance provided by this underused form is extremely useful, as well as beautiful, and would be beneficial in a variety of contexts.

    I know that, academically speaking, ELF is not a simplified version of English, but, as anything becomes more popular, it moves further and further away from its origins, just look at the debate going on in dogme circles about the validity of its founding principles today.

    There is a danger that a popular form of ELF could result in an oversimplified form of expression if it's not crafted carefully.

    In the continuous effort to streamline Business English and provide ever increasing value, we must be extremely careful that we don't inadvertently deny true value of expression to the very people we're here to serve, the learners.

  2. Hi Ed,

    Many thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think as the demand for all kinds of ESP grows, auditing the language we attend to will become a more and more valuable skill. Percentages of use and cross-functional applicability may become more commonplace, and the best guesses of the informed trainer will be replaced by the decimal-point accuracy of up-to-date copora.

    However, I do not fear for the simplification of the language, least of all because English is a truly democratic project, built and re-built from the bottom up by its practitioners. I also take heart from the experience of Dogme, which has developed, via the community of its users, from a rather austere, almost ascetic, practice to become a rich and sophisticated teaching approach.


  3. In my usage, "they had eaten when I arrived", and "they ate before I arrived" can imply difference in affectedness. The latter can better suggest that they looked fed, full, satisfied, etc.

  4. Hi Mikey,

    That's a new one for me, but I like it. It seems to fit in with the general rule of English that the more remote something is, in terms of tense, the more unreal it is. Here, the feeling of satiation is rendered more vivid with the past simple and more remote with the past perfect.
    Great stuff! Thanks for sharing that.