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I believe, I understand what is difference between the past simple tense and the past perfect tense. As per my knowledge, we use the past perfect tense to show the much old action in the past when two actions happened at the same time in the past.

Let me tell you with the example:

I went to his home but he had already left home.

I have asked this because I have been reading a novel (Bad for You) for the last ten days. In the novel, the writer used (sometimes it is completely unnecessary as per my opinion, I think she could use the past simple tense instead of the past perfect tense) the past perfect tense a lot, so it has been making me confused sometimes.

I have posted a paragraph from the novel and I also rewrote the same paragraph. Please check the paragraph which I have written and let me know that it (the paragraph I have written) makes sense or not?

Bad for You

When he had walked me to my door, he had kissed me. Like before, it had felt good, and the closeness had been nice. His taste was warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine had been exciting. I had been happy to stand outside and kiss him for hours. But Linc had ended the kiss and then let out a deep breath before kissing me on the forehead and saying goodnight.

By me

When he had walked me to my door, he kissed me. Like before, it felt good, and the closeness had been nice. His taste was warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine had been exciting. I had been happy to stand outside and kiss him for hours. …

  • 1
    This might help a little. I read the the original version of your example and it made me feel like she thought of the whole think after everything had happened or just had happened. She still felt the warmth of his (kiss?). Changing it the way you suggested made me feel like walking one step forward and then one step back, a few steps forward, then back again. Literally, it changes the sequence of the story. – Damkerng T. Jun 6 '14 at 20:10
  • Thanks for your quick response! So the changes I made do they make sense? – user62015 Jun 7 '14 at 2:34
  • You're welcome! About the changes, one of them is ungrammatical (as the other answer suggests: after is better than when if you change it), and the other is passable, I think, but it lumped the time that she felt good with the moment of the narrative (the time indicated by "his taste was warm"), so it feels different. I'll try to write up the answers based on these two comments of mine. Meanwhile, I hope that they can capture the essence of the issue well enough. – Damkerng T. Jun 7 '14 at 2:47
  • @DamkerngT.Thank you so much! After your last comment I have worked on it and let me tell you what I have understood yet. Let's assume, I am a professional writer! And I have been writing a story since last year. So at the same moment, when I have been writing the story I have also been thinking about some incidents (real incidents). So I have to describe all those incidents in the past perfect tense because those incidents had happened before I started writing the story. This is something you want me to understand (as per your comment on my question)? Examples: – user62015 Jun 7 '14 at 4:21
  • @DamkerngT.I had gone to the market and I had seen some very beautiful tables at a shop. I have also written the last one (had seen) using the past perfect tense, because first I have done these two actions and then I had thought about them. And of course after that I mentioned them in my story. Let's assume that I have not been writing any story. But now I want to tell or rewrite the same sentence again, and of course I have not thought about them before. So, should I write the same sentence like this. Example: I had gone to the market and I saw some very beautiful tables at a shop. – user62015 Jun 7 '14 at 4:23
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It is common to tell the story in novels in the past tense. When a story is narrated in the past tense, the past tense prose is equivalent to our present tense, as we follow the unfolding story.

NOTE: In my previous revision, I tried to simplify the reason of the use of the past tense to "to depicts events in the story as something happened before the time the author wrote the novel". But that is inaccurate. For example, a futuristic setting where people could travel faster than light is commonly told in the past tense too. (Credits go to F.E. for pointing this out to me in our chat room.) It's probably the best to think of the use of the past tense in novels as a literature device. Also note that there are several narrative styles. Narrating events in the past tense is the most common in novels.

It might be possible to write a story only in the simple past tense, but that will make the sequence of the story very sequential, each of the sentences refers to a specific event in the story, one happened after another, on and on and on. Isn't that kind of boring?

Naturally, the author needs a way to describe events that happened before the moment happening in the story. How can they do that? To say things happened in the past before the past, as you already know, we use "the past perfect".

A Tense Shifting Experiment

To sum it up, in novels, we usually narrate in the past tense. The simple past tense is used for the usual present tense. And the past perfect is used for the usual present perfect and simple past.

To make things more clear, let's try a little experiment together. Let's see what it will be like if we write the same thing in the present tense.

Original:

When he had walked me to my door, he had kissed me. Like before, it had felt good, and the closeness had been nice. His taste was warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine had been exciting. I had been happy to stand outside and kiss him for hours. But Linc had ended the kiss and then let out a deep breath before kissing me on the forehead and saying goodnight.

Let's shift the whole narrative to the present tense:

When he walked me to my door, he kissed me. Like before, it felt good, and the closeness was nice. His taste is warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine was exciting. I would be happy to stand outside and kiss him for hours. But Linc ended the kiss and then let out a deep breath before kissing me on the forehead and saying goodnight.

Since the past perfect is used for the usual present perfect and simple past, it's up to the reader to interpret which one makes more sense to them. This is one possible interpretation.

One thing is clear. The only "present" in the narrative is this part, "His taste was warm". The rest happened before this "present". Why? Because the past perfect forces that. So there's nothing wrong with the past perfects. In fact, I believe that they're required. (Though, as you seem to know, you don't have to use the past perfect unless you really have to).

What appears to be the author's intention is that the narrator (the one who put her memory into words for us) was thinking back to a kiss she had received earlier from Linc. So, that kiss becomes the "now" of her thought, as indicated by "was", in the narrative. And it seems to be the author's choice to use a lot of past perfects to narrate her reminiscence.

NOTE: In my previous revision, I shifted "I had been happy to ..." to "I was happy ...". This is less than idea, for the writer seems to intend that "I had been happy to ..." to actually mean "I would have been happy to ...". (This is probably to give us a hint about her personality.) So a better shifted-to-present version would be "I would be ...", which is equivalent to "I would have been ..." as it should have been in the narrative. With all the pieces falling into place, I decided to revise the shifting of "... against mine had been exciting." to "... was exciting.", too.


Now, let's get back to your question: whether your rewriting make sense or not?

As you can see now, if you replaced some past perfects with a simple past, it could change the order of what happened in the story.

Let's see what would happen if we applied your changes to the shifted-to-present version:

When he walked me to my door, he kisses me. Like before, it feels good, and the closeness was nice. His taste is warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine was exciting. I would be happy to stand outside and kiss him for hours. But Linc ended the kiss and then let out a deep breath before kissing me on the forehead and saying goodnight.

Another issue is now obvious. "When he walked me to my door, he kisses me," is ungrammatical. (And so is "When he had walked me to my door, he kissed me.") We usually use when to state things that happen at the same time. Though when to after can fix that, but your story will be a different one. It also seems to make less sense than the original, "Linc ended the kiss" after "he kisses me". Isn't that strange?

  • Because typos usually follow me everywhere, it's possible that I typed something wrong in the answer. It's equally possible that I typed some nonsense, too. Just tell me if you find my answer strange in any way, and I will fix it. BBL. – Damkerng T. Jun 7 '14 at 6:11
  • Thanks for your quick response. I have been going through this since you have answered it (also enjoying it a lot)! And I am sure I will get success soon!!! I will ping you soon with more questions. I have to understand it this time at any cost. I appreciate your help and precious time. – user62015 Jun 7 '14 at 13:17
  • I got another question for you regarding the past perfect tense!!! I read "She studied me a moment then stood up and ran over to me". My question is, why the writer did not write it something like this "She had studied me a moment then stood up and ran over to me". As we know when two actions happen at the same moment, we use the past perfect tense to tell the old action. If you need more details about the source I can give you. – user62015 Jun 17 '14 at 14:34
  • It's because we don't have to use the past perfect unless we really have to. In short, if the flow of the events is clear (it's very clear in "She studied me a moment then stood up and ran over to me"), the past perfect is optional. – Damkerng T. Jun 17 '14 at 14:39
  • Can we chat? If you do not mind. I need to understand how to use it. If chat is not possible we can talk here but I have to solve this problem at any cost. I appreciate your help and time! – user62015 Jun 17 '14 at 14:45
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A proper analysis of the passage in question is only possible when considering the paragraph that comes before it:

There was no party that night. I had expected one, but the noise never came. I did hear feet walking upstairs around midnight, but that was it. Nothing else. Linc had tried to be casual with his questions, but I could tell he had been curious about Krit. My answers were appeasing him.

When he had walked me to my door, he had kissed me. Like before, it had felt good, and the closeness had been nice. His taste was warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine had been exciting. I had been happy to stand outside and kiss him for hours. But Linc had ended the kiss and then let out a deep breath before kissing me on the forehead and saying goodnight.

This indicates that there are only two mistakes in the passage.

I will edit the passage with brackets to indicate changed verb tenses:

When he had walked me to my door, he had kissed me. Like before, it had felt good, and the closeness had been nice. His taste [had been] warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine had been exciting. I [would have] been happy to stand outside and kiss him for hours. But Linc had ended the kiss and then let out a deep breath before kissing me on the forehead and saying goodnight.

After changing his taste was warm to his taste had been warm, the passage now makes sense—especially in light of the fact that the previous paragraph sets it up to all take place in the perfect past.

Also note that without this correction, the original sentence in question suffers from a lack of parallelism:

His taste was warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine had been exciting.

Without rephrasing it in order to make that mixing of tenses acceptable (something like his taste was warm, just as the gentle touches of his tongue against mine had been exciting), one or the other of those verb tenses should have been changed to match the other one.

As for changing had been happy to stand to would have been happy to stand, it's less problematic but still worth correcting.

Finally, to address why it's not just in the simple past: it can't be because it's an event that's being described as having taken place prior to some of the events described in the previous paragraph—which are themselves described in the simple past.


Note: This is the end of my analysis and you can stop reading here.

What follows is the answer I had originally provided when I had not looked at the paragraph that came before the passage in question.

I provide this only to those who are interested in an illustration of how important context is.


I don't know if I can give a valid interpretation of this passage, because I don't believe the assumption that it's been written as it was intended to be written.

Note that within context, and after making only a couple simpler changes, the issues I'd had with semantics also disappeared.

Let me restate the original passage:

When he had walked me to my door, he had kissed me. Like before, it had felt good, and the closeness had been nice. His taste was warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine had been exciting. I had been happy to stand outside and kiss him for hours. But Linc had ended the kiss and then let out a deep breath before kissing me on the forehead and saying goodnight.

Honestly, I get the impression that this passage is neither well written nor edited. No matter what interpretation I put on the various tenses, I am left feeling confused.

In my mind, I would like to reinterpret the passage so that it becomes something like this (brackets indicate added, changed, or deleted text):

When he had walked me to my door [in the past], he had [always] kissed me. [This time,] like before, it [] felt good, and the closeness [was] nice. His taste was warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine [were] exciting. I [would have] been happy to stand outside and kiss him for hours. But Linc [] ended the kiss and then let out a deep breath before kissing me on the forehead and saying goodnight.

With this revision, I have no problem reading and understanding exactly what's going on; what events are properly in the simple past and what parts are in the perfect past.

There are a couple of pieces I could interpret differently, but the overall edit would be the same: better separation of verb tenses.

I am not at all certain that the book is written in a completely appropriate way. It seems to me that some parts need to be in one tense (whatever that should be) and other parts need to be in a (relatively speaking) prior tense. But it seems that some phrases that should be in one tense have, out of some oversight, been left in the other. This causes confusion because they both appear to be happening "at the same time" rather than one happening before the other and serving as a comparison.

I can't really make a proper judgment, though, because I'd have to see more of the narrative that takes place before this passage.

There is also a semantic (or mini-structural) problem. The passage talks about what used to happen in the past—and then it talks about what happens this time. But there is no explicit difference given between the two. So, the comparison is simply confusing.

I am assuming that in prior experiences they did stand and kiss for a longer period of time, and Linc never stopped like he did this time. It's this fact that makes this particular event pale in comparison and seem strange. Why did Linc stop this time when he didn't before?

No doubt this is explained in the rest of the story. But this contrast between "prior past" and "current past" should have been made more explicit—both in content and verb tenses.

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My two cents:

I agree that the overuse of past perfect may tickle our irritability! But then, it completely depends on the author's style of writing. To me, the difference between simple past and past perfect in such a context, is that one is past, and another one is distant past.

'He told me about Henry' and 'he had told me about Henry.'

both of them talk about he giving information about Henry, but if I want to emphasize that it was distant past, I'd certainly use 'had come.' The meaning may not change but the time of event does. The latter one takes you more into past, the distant past whereas the former one may seem like the event has just happened.

Another thing is the author is maintaining the flow that even you did in your own style!

When he had walked me to my door, he had kissed me. Like before, it had felt good, and the closeness had been nice. His taste was warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine had been exciting. I had been happy to stand outside and kiss him for hours. But Linc had ended the kiss and then let out a deep breath before kissing me on the forehead and saying goodnight.

You have also maintained the same at most of the places -

When he had walked me to my door, he kissed me. Like before, it felt good, and the closeness had been nice. His taste was warm, and the gentle touches of his tongue against mine had been exciting. I had been happy to stand outside and kiss him for hours. …

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