Let’s continue our full-dress review of the perfect tenses, this time focusing on the past perfect tense. We will do so to clarify the second of three slippery conclusions about the perfect tenses that were presented by Miss Mae, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, in her rejoinder to my column last December 5. Her second conclusion was that the past perfect tense is used “when the action was completed before another action.”
That the past perfect tense is used for an action that was completed before another action is, of course, basically correct, as in “She had left to work in Dubai when her job application for a coveted Manila-based job was accepted.” This is just one of the uses of the past perfect, however. Another use is for a continuing condition that ended in the past with usually only an implicit reference to another past outcome, as in “The dead felon had taken the wrong path.”
Grammatically, the past perfect is formed in much the same way as the present perfect, with one major difference. We use the past participle of the main verb in the same way as the present perfect, but this time we pair it off with “had,” the past tense of “have,” to form the past perfect component, which we then pair off with at least one other action in the simple past tense. The typical past-perfect sentence thus consists of at least two separate actions, one in the past perfect and the other in the simple past.
The past perfect, unlike the present perfect, doesn’t cover actions that may extend to the present. Instead, it emphasizes the fact that one action, event, or condition ended before another past action, event, or condition began, as in “The couple had left for the airport when their daughter called that her flight was cancelled.” The past participle is carried by the action of the couple, “had left for the airport,” which took place before the daughter’s action of making a call about the cancellation of her flight.
In practice, the past perfect is most useful in showing the hierarchy or succession of past actions in compound or complex sentences. In particular, if the action in a coordinate clause happened before the action in the other coordinate clause, the past perfect becomes the appropriate tense for the dependent clause. Take this compound sentence, for example: “The applicant reported for the job interview promptly at 10:30 a.m., but the hiring officer had left for an emergency manager’s meeting.” The action in the second clause, “the hiring officer had left for an emergency manager’s meeting,” has to be in the past perfect because it took place before that of the first clause, which is the applicant’s reporting for the interview.
In complex past-perfect sentences, the independent clause takes the simple past tense. Consider this sentence: “The poll body disqualified the candidate because, among others, she had made material misrepresentations in her certificate of candidacy.” Both the action in the independent clause, “the poll body disqualified the candidate,” and in the dependent clause, “she had made material misrepresentations in her certificate of candidacy,” happened in the past, but the latter takes the past perfect because it precedes the former in time.
Then there is a baseline use of the present perfect that doesn’t require the explicit use of another action completed before another past event. Take a look at this sentence: “The heavy rains had lasted a month.” It states an action that began and ended sometime in the past, as opposed to the present perfect “The heavy rains have lasted a month,” which denotes a condition that began in the past and continues up to the present.
Next week: The uses and workings of the future perfect tense
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