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Can you use the word 'yesterday' in past perfect tense?

For example, in a story narrated in first person past tense--does this make sense or should it be reworded?

"As I approached the dining room table I suddenly stopped in my tracks, eyeing Derek's business card in the same spot I had left it yesterday evening."

I reworded a similar example: "I concluded I had nothing better to do than help out the bizarre stranger I had met yesterday." To say: "I concluded I had nothing better to do than help out the bizarre stranger I had met the day before."

Which is better/more correct?

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    Your context looks like an extended past tense narrative, where the primary "narrative reference time" moves forward in the same way that "real clock time" moves forward in the actual present. That makes it "okay" to use yesterday, but imho it's safer / stylistically better to go with previous day or day before. Note that you can't reasonably use yesterday in a context like I spoke to him last Saturday, but when I saw him again on Sunday morning he didn't remember meeting me yesterday. Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 12:18
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    @FumbleFingers but if it's clear that the past tense narrative is referring to today then yesterday would be fine: "when I approached the table this morning, I saw the card where I had left it yesterday evening."
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 1, 2023 at 17:27

3 Answers 3

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The word "yesterday" always means "the day before today", as in , the day before the moment you're speaking or writing.

So your original sentence only works if you are telling the story the day after it happened, and at no other time. So in a narrated story, where the time usually isn't specified exactly relative to the day you write the story, it's incorrect, and you should use "the day before".

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Yes, this is completely fine and appears regularly in past-tense narrative writing. Such writing often bends this kind of rule for conciseness and a sense of "inhabiting" the past frame of reference.

Ngram returns a multitude of relevant examples for "had done yesterday".

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Both versions are grammatically correct, but they convey slightly different nuances.

In the first example, using "yesterday evening" in the past perfect tense is acceptable in a first-person narrative. It emphasizes the specific time frame and adds a sense of immediacy. It implies that the narrator left the business card in that spot very recently.

In the reworded version, using "the day before" is more neutral and avoids repetition of the word "yesterday." It still conveys the same meaning but in a slightly more general way.

In terms of which is better or more correct, it ultimately depends on your preference and the desired tone of your narrative. If you want to emphasize the specific time frame and make it clear that it was just the previous evening, using "yesterday evening" in the past perfect tense works well. If you prefer a slightly less specific or repetitive expression, using "the day before" is a good alternative.

Both options are valid, so choose the one that best fits the flow and style of your narrative. Please upvote the comment.

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