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)