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He watched Powers drum his fingers restlessly on the enamel desk top, his eyes glancing at the spinal level charts hung around the office. Despite his unkempt appearance—he had been wearing the same unironed shirt and dirty white sneakers a week ago—Powers looked composed and self-possessed, like a ·Conrad beachcomber more or less reconciled to his own weaknesses.
Source: The Voices of Time, by J. G. Ballard

I’m wondering why “had been wearing” can be used with “a week ago”. I would think it should be “since a week ago” or “for the last week”.

Please help clarify this.

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J. G. Ballard is a widely-respected writer, so you can pretty much take it for granted the cited usage is "correct". The pluperfect is simply because the time-frame being referenced is even earlier than the "current narrative time" (when Powers was drumming his fingers). Personally, I think that since and ago don't always sit well together, which is one of the reasons I endorse the usage as cited. And for the last week would deprive the reader of a stylistically elegant device allowing him to make the "continuous" inference himself (in the interests of "reader involvement") –  FumbleFingers Jun 5 at 16:27
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@FumbleFingers, I think what Ballard is doing here is emphasizing that the outfit is more unkempt than it might normally seem to be simply by virtue of Powers having worn it a week ago. I can't possibly read "had been wearing some outfit a week ago" to mean wearing said some outfit for all of the preceding week. –  Samuel Lijin Jun 5 at 16:33
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@SamuelLijin Actually that's exactly what it means (or at least, what it implies). –  WendiKidd Jun 5 at 17:05
    
@WendiKidd clearly you have not studied the clothing habits of bachelors. :-) –  Hellion Jun 5 at 17:42
    
I never expected such a question would arouse so many discrepancies! Interesting. @FumbleFingers, Samuel –  Kinzle B Jun 6 at 6:54

7 Answers 7

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This is more of a literary point than a grammatical one.

Literally and grammatically, the text does not actually say that he wore the clothes for the entire preceding week. What it says is "A week ago (the last time I saw him and had a chance to know what he was wearing) he was wearing the same clothes I see him wearing now." That's all that is literally being said.

We have point A: one week ago, he was wearing these clothes

And we have point B: now, he is also wearing these clothes

Literally and grammatically, this is all that we know. But there's a very clear implication here. The reader infers that the only reason you would have to make that statement is because you think he's been wearing them for the entire week (this is reinforced by their dirtiness).

It is possible that he wore the clothes one week ago, then changed clothes each day, and decided to wear these same clothes again today (and that for some other reason they are now dirty). That's a possible literal interpretation of the evidence. But if that's what the narrator thought, he would have no reason to remark on it. "I think he wore those clothes once last week and again today, but not during the intervening time. Also they happen to be dirty." What would be the purpose of making this observation? It doesn't work in context. So it's clear that the narrator is making this statement because he does think that he has been wearing these clothes for the entire week since he last saw him.

To answer the exact form of your question: the reason that the text doesn't say he had been wearing them for the last week is because the narrator does not know for 100% sure that he did. Another scenario could have taken place. But the narrator doesn't think that's what happened, so he states the two facts he knows and implies the rest (the implied part is "he's been wearing the same clothes for the last week").

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I think this is pretty much exactly what I think. I'm not convinced Ballard expects (or even wants) the reader to analyse his choice of phrasing this deeply, but I do feel the fact that we have to devote some (tiny amount of) effort to infer the hadn't changed his shirt in a week or more meaning is stylistically helpful, in that it forces us to become more actively involved in the reading, rather than passively letting the words wash over us. –  FumbleFingers Jun 5 at 17:36
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I see no reason to assume that the narrator thinks, or wants us to think, that he's been wearing the same clothes the whole time. It's entirely common among men (especially unmarried ones) to take off a shirt, toss it on the floor, and then days later pick it up and wear it again if it doesn't smell too bad. –  Hellion Jun 5 at 17:37
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Now I understand what it is that @FumbleFingers was getting at! Although I don't 100% agree with this interpretation of what the observation implies, I do see where it's coming from now. –  Samuel Lijin Jun 5 at 19:56
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@Samuel: I'm very glad to see your comment. I agree with Wendikidd that this particular question steers very close to Off Topic lit-crit, and if you and I disagree it's more a matter of differing subjective interpretations than the kind of "right/wrong" responses OP seems to be hoping for. But in order for us to meaningfully discuss our interpretations, it's obviously important that we should fully understand alternative perspectives... –  FumbleFingers Jun 5 at 20:13
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... It would be interesting to see the responses from 100 readers to the question "Is it likely Powers never wore any other shirt, and never washed the one he was wearing a week ago, during the entire week that followed?". My own answer would be "Yes", but there's certainly scope for different opinions. –  FumbleFingers Jun 5 at 20:15

There are only two data points: "I saw him last week" and "I am seeing him today". At those two points, Powers is wearing the same clothing each time (an unironed shirt and dirty white sneakers). The narrator of the passage cannot conclude (or does not want us to conclude) from just those two occurrences that Powers has actually been wearing the same clothes for the entire intervening week; the only assumption we can reasonably make is that the clothes were probably not washed during the intervening week.

The phrases "Had been wearing X since a week ago" or "Had been wearing X for the last week" would unequivocally declare that the clothing was worn for the entire week.

The phrase "Had been wearing X a week ago" is essentially the same as "Had worn X a week ago": Powers was in a particular set of clothes for the duration of the narrator's visit. I feel that the perfect construction is a bit more natural than the simple past, in part because I have a sense that the simple past has more of a tie to the actual 'putting-on' of clothing and may therefore give a subtle impression that the subject specifically chose the clothes for this particular occasion.

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I read carefully all your excellent answers. All are perfect for English natives but they don’t answer the OP’s confusion:

I wonder why had been wearing can be used with a week ago.

The OP doesn’t understand how a precise instance in time (a week ago) can go with the continuous aspect, that is, in the OP’s mind it should be either a week ago or a continuous duration in time.

For this reason he thinks:

I would think it should be since a week ago or for the last week.

The answer for the confusion in question is that even though the time sequence is continuous the duration doesn’t continue until now, it stops before another event in the past, it stops in that very “week ago”.

You should think this way: firstly we are dealing here with past perfect (make abstraction of continuous aspect) and then try to imagine how would be to add some continuous duration, but be careful, this duration should end before another event in the past.

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I would argue that the key here is that you've misunderstood the sentence - the author is not literally saying that Powers has been wearing "the same unironed shirt and dirty white sneakers" for the entirety of the preceding week. He is saying, rather, that for some period of time that started and ended about a week ago, Powers had been wearing that very outfit.

Indeed, if the sentence was intended to literally mean that Powers had been wearing that outfit for the entire week, starting at the latest a week ago, then since a week ago or for the last week would work fine in place of a week ago, although I personally would elect to use for the past week (and would prefer for the last week over since a week ago; it sounds a mite less unnatural).

Rather, all the sentence is is an observation by the narrator that Powers, a week ago, had been wearing the exact same outfit. It is not immediately clear whether Powers has been wearing the same outfit for the entire week or whether Powers has changed outfits during that week and simply worn the same outfit at this point in time, with or without having washed it. While the first one - that Powers has been wearing the same outfit for the entire week - is a perfectly reasonable reading to draw, it's not possible to completely rule out the others (hence the disagreement evident within these answers).

Your reading - that Powers has been wearing that outfit for the entire week - would certainly exaggerate the extent of Powers' unkempt-ness, and is a perfectly natural implication that follows from the statement, but what Ballard seems to be doing here is emphasizing that the outfit is all the more unkempt for the sole reason that Powers had worn it a week ago - perhaps because Powers has been wearing it for the entire week, but also possibly for some other reason. (You might also read the sentence to be an emphasis on that Powers being habitually unkempt (I have no idea if this is true or not), but given the lack of any such indication in this passage, this is highly unlikely).

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Taking both your answer text and your comment to the question into account, it seems to me you're assuming Powers might not have been wearing that same unironed shirt for the entire week, but I think that's an unlikely interpretation. Per my own comment, I wouldn't much like since a week ago in a pluperfect construction (inter alia, ago seems to me too closely connected to relative to time of speaking, rather than narrative time). In short, I think you are misreading the significance of the precise wording. –  FumbleFingers Jun 5 at 16:42
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While I understand your stance given the context - that it's an unlikely interpretation - I can't reconcile the grammar with the idea that the sentence refers to having worn it for the entire week. Out of context, I certainly would never even consider such a meaning, and in context, I wouldn't have thought of it unless I stared intently at that particular passage. Perhaps what Ballard is saying is that Powers hasn't washed that outfit since he last wore it, and because of that, it's ever more unkempt? –  Samuel Lijin Jun 5 at 16:48
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It's a literary thing more than a grammatical one, Samuel. It does not actually say that he wore the clothes for the entire week. What it says is "A week ago (the last time I saw him and had a chance to know what he was wearing) he was wearing the same clothes I see him wearing now." That's all that is literally being said. But there's a very clear implication there; the reader infers that the only reason you would have to make that statement is because you think he's been wearing them the entire week (enforced by their dirtiness). cc @FumbleFingers –  WendiKidd Jun 5 at 16:57
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I'm not 100% sure exactly what you mean by "some period of time that transpired a week ago" (though I suspect it's a misuse of the word), but yes - I do think the implication of my reading (that Powers hasn't changed his shirt for at least a week) implies he's even more unkempt than he was at that earlier time. –  FumbleFingers Jun 5 at 16:57
    
@FumbleFingers I've posted an answer, but I'm not sure I addressed all the points you're making here. If you'd like to edit to add something, please feel free. –  WendiKidd Jun 5 at 17:13

I think that what is confusing you is the "had been".

"Had been" is the past version of "Has been". "Had been" means that the event was happening in the past and is already finished.

"Has been" means that the event was happening in the past, and continues to do so now.

If the sentence was:

he has been wearing the same unironed shirt and dirty white sneakers a week ago

...then your suggestion to add "since" or "for the last week" would be correct. But because the sentence uses "had been" and not "has been", then the sentence is already correct, and needs no modification.

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It is probably the best to become aware that the past perfect doesn't work exactly the same way as the present perfect does.

This is from Wikipedia: Uses of English verb forms,

Note that unlike the present perfect, the past perfect can readily be used with an adverb specifying a past time frame for the occurrence. For example, while it is incorrect to say *I have done it last Friday (the use of last Friday, specifying the past time, would require the simple past rather than the present perfect), there is no such objection to a sentence like "I had done it the previous Friday".

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It makes perfect sense, but because of the nature of the English language, it can be interpreted wrong upon first impression. It's definitely one of those kinds of sentences that stop you in your tracks while reading it.

...—he had been wearing the same unironed shirt and dirty white sneakers a week ago.

  • He - the pronoun, The Subject
  • Had been wearing - The Verb (pluperfect tense)
  • the same unironed shirt and dirty white sneakers - The Object
  • a week ago. - The time modifier...

The sentence can be interpreted in two ways.

One

Even though he already looked dirty the shirt he had been wearing was the same shirt he was wearing last week. The previous week

Two

Even though he already looked dirty the shirt he had been wearing was a week ago

The second demonstrates how it could be misinterpreted because a week ago appears out of nowhere, and for no reason. Then you think to yourself..

if they had written from a week ago, it would make more sense; therefore "it must be a typo!".

Turn the sentence around and it comes to life

Despite his [untidy appearance], a week ago he had been wearing the same [shirt] and [shoes].

Helpful reading http://aggslanguage.wordpress.com/2-3-sentences-clauses-phrases/

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I think these are incorrect - the dashes here are used to embed, or bracket, additional information - the author could have used parentheses instead and achieved much the same effect. Although dashes can be used to indicate counter-expectant clauses, in this case it's just more detail. That is, rather than Despite his [untidy appearance], a week ago he had been wearing the same [shirt] and [shoes], it is closer to Despite his [untidy appearance], (a week ago he had been wearing the same [shirt] and [shoes]). –  jimsug Jun 6 at 1:14

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