There's this text in Quirke's Comprehensive Grammar:

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The author later states that when the content of the dream is narrated, the past tenses 'was threatening','had' relate not to 'breakfast time', but to an earlier point (namely just before the girl's awakening).

If these actions happened before some other explicit time point, why do they have the past tense without perfective? I'm guessing it's because the past-in-the-past time is being identified by 'In my sister's dream', so there's no real need for the perfective to do it - but I'm not sure if that's the right interpretation.

A similar example from another book:

I rolled to my hands and knees, shook myself all over and then came to my feet. A dream, I told myself. Only a dream. Fear and shame washed over me, dirtying me in their passage. In my dream I had pleaded for mercy as I had not in reality.

What's the difference? Any help? Thanks.

  • 1
    Why do they have the past tense without perfective? Because most native speakers tend to avoid perfect forms where they're unnecessary (if the sequence of events is contextually obvious). And I don't say your final example is "defective", but I have to say "repeating" the perfect form in that last sentence looks a bit clumsy/stilted to me. I'd have preferred In my dream I pleaded for mercy, as I had not in reality. Jan 24, 2018 at 18:54
  • @FumbleFingers Quirke's book says pretty much the same about perfective in another chapter, but I thought maybe there's something special going on in this particular text. Thanks! Jan 24, 2018 at 19:06

1 Answer 1


He is describing the dream itself as it was unfolding, not in relation to an event that occurred before or after it. You are showing a fundamental misunderstanding of tenses when you claim that the dream occurred before some other event, for ALL events are preceded by other events and followed by yet other events. Objective reality is irrelevant to the choice of tense. It is the speaker's subjective presentation of the event, the speaker's "framing" of the event, that is relevant.

Is the speaker describing the event as it unfolds? Describing the event as something that happened before or after another event? As something that merely took place?

Here the speaker is describing a past series of dream-events as the dream unfolded to his sister:

In my sister's dream some Fearsome Creature was threatening the kitten's life and only she had the power to save it.

If he wanted to describe his sister's dream in terms of one that he himself had dreamed, let's say a week afterwards, then he might well use the past perfect:

In my sister's dream some Fearsome Creature had been threatening the kitten's life and only she had had the power to save it, whereas in my own dream, possibly influenced by hers, the kitten itself assumed monstrous proportions and was threatening a mouse wearing a bow-tie, and no one was able to save this mouse but the mouse itself.

  • Thank you. The book says "The past perfective may be said to denote any event or state anterior to a time of orientation in the past." and "perfective indicates anterior time; i.e time preceding whatever time orientation is signalled by tense or by other elements of the sentence or its context."(The flight was cancelled after we had paid for the tickets. - the time of cancelling the flight is the time orientation for 'had paid'). So when I see all these specified times in this text (breakfast, etc.) and that the dream is anterior to them, I assume they play some role here. What am I missing? Jan 24, 2018 at 19:57
  • Again, you have a fundamental misunderstanding, owing in part to the way Quirk describes things. The important word here is orientation. It is not an objective orientation but a subjective orientation: the tense reveals if, and if so, how, the speaker understands and wishes to portray the event in relation to other events in time. The tenses REVEAL a subjective reality, they do not necessarily CONFORM to an objective reality.
    – TimR
    Jan 24, 2018 at 20:41

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