(Post copied, with minor alterations, from English Language & Usage on suggestion from a user.)

Recently, I’ve been editing a piece of writing written in first-person present tense. The narrator often switches between present and past tense, and there are several times when he refers to an event taking place further in the past, necessitating the past perfect.

Occasionally, I notice that the narrator refers to a past event, then a time before that, but he doesn’t use the past perfect. Usually, I would say this is incorrect, but time references and general context seem to make the past perfect redundant. Take this example:

The criminals’ retribution arrived without warning, and now I know that the missing men, vanished years ago, were taken by them.

Here you can see that the narrator uses ‘were,’ not ‘had been,’ even though the taking of the men happened before the arrival of the criminals’ retribution. Does the switching to present tense (‘now I know’) and the time reference ‘years ago’ in the past-participle clause remove the need for past perfect?

Switching back and forth between present and past does alter the perspective of time, so how much scope does the past perfect have?

If the narrator switches back to present tense, should we therefore revert to simple past when referring to events earlier than those in the sentence before the shift?

If we didn’t include the present tense ‘know,’ the subordinate clause would undoubtedly be written in past perfect.

See this example, which removes the shift to present tense:

The criminals’ retribution arrived without warning, and it was clear that the missing men, vanished years ago, had been taken by them.

1 Answer 1


You have misunderstood the use of the past perfect.

Firstly it is rare. As it is the last major tense form to be learned, some advanced learners overuse it.

The past perfect is used to mark an action or state as being complete at a point in the past. It isn't used just because one action occurred before another.

In many cases both past and past perfect are acceptable, but the past tense should be preferred. This applies to your sentence. The present tense narrator is describing various events in the past. For the past actions, a past tense should be used. There's no requirement to use past perfect. This doesn't mean that past perfect would be wrong but it's not required by English grammar.

The criminal's retribution arrived without warning, and it was clear that the men were taken by them.

This describes two events in the past, and correctly uses the past tense. One might choose to use past perfect, to mark the aspect that the taking of the men was complete at the time that the retribution arrived. This would be a choice that the writer could make.

So the shift to the present tense does mix up the sense of time, but it doesn't change the basic fact that past tense is correct for talking about past actions and states.

Consider these other correct sentences:

Before I bought a car, I read lots of magazines about cars.

Joe visited his mother yesterday. Last week he visited his Father, and tomorrow he'll visit his aunt.

  • Am I right to therefore assume a sentence such as this next one is perfectly acceptable, too? 'He observed the crowd, which had grown as more people [had] arrived.'
    – MJ Ada
    Oct 9, 2023 at 21:45
  • 1
    In that sentence there is a slight difference between "as more people arrived" (people were still arriving) and "as more people had arrived" (people had stopped arriving and so the crowd wasn't growing any more)
    – James K
    Oct 9, 2023 at 21:49
  • The context is that people are still arriving, but the crowd has already grown somewhat. For further clarity, the 'as' is intended to mean 'at the same time,' not 'because.'
    – MJ Ada
    Oct 9, 2023 at 21:52
  • 1
    As I thougth, so "as more people arrived" would be the right way to express this.
    – James K
    Oct 9, 2023 at 21:58
  • To add to your answer, I've found a quote from a published Stephen King novel, The Gunslinger, that demonstrates both using past-perfect 'had' consecutively and using it only once: 'It had been twelve years since he had seen it, and leaving for the last time, Roland had ached as he turned his face away from it and began his first cast for the trail of the man in black.'
    – MJ Ada
    Oct 9, 2023 at 22:04

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