I came across this sentence written by Amy Tan in Mother Tongue:

You had agreed to send the check two weeks ago, but it hasn't arrived.

It seems at least unnecessary, if not ungrammatical, to use past perfect here in conjunction with present perfect. Simple past seems like the more natural choice:

You agreed to send the check two weeks ago, but it hasn't arrived yet.

Was this a mistake (perhaps deliberate, as she is recounting a story from her childhood when she may have not yet mastered English) on Tan's part, or does this pairing of past perfect with present perfect pass muster?

  • 3
    The past perfect is indeed unnecessary; but I think the key is that Ms. Tan (whose present-day command of English is exquisite) is telling a story about herself as a fifteen-year-old trying very hard to sound as "grown up" as possible -- and succeeding because her own idiolect at the time was rather turgid and stiff. It's an extra very subtle level of humor. Mar 31 '15 at 1:36
  • The text includes: And then I said in perfect English, "Yes, I'm getting rather concerned. You had agreed to send the check two weeks ago, but it hasn't arrived." <-- That is good grammatical English. There is no mistake in it.
    – F.E.
    Mar 31 '15 at 8:58

Maybe I'd find this subtly humorous too, if I read it in context -- but I don't know this particular book of hers. But I don't have any trouble imagining myself, or anyone else, using this tense in this sentence. I'm going to give my interpretation of the two sentences, but in reverse order:

You agreed to send the check two weeks ago, but it hasn't arrived yet.

Earlier in this same conversation, you agreed to do something -- but since that something was supposed to happen two weeks ago, this tense doesn't jive.

You had agreed to send the check two weeks ago, but it hasn't arrived.

The last time we spoke about this (i.e. two weeks ago), you agreed to send the check; but evidently you didn't send it.

As you probably know, the past perfect is used when there are two different points of time in the past that we want to talk about. For example, "The snow plow had already come through when I got up this morning."

They forged an agreement in the the distant past, and then the person's way of thinking about sending the check changed at some point. He or she did an about-face in the more recent past.

Also, "You agreed" sounds more accusatory to my ear -- kind of like "you lied." It's subtle.

  • I'm certainly familiar with the way in which past perfect is typically used--to situate a past event preceding another one (marked by simple past). e.g. I hurried to the platform, but the train doors had (already) closed. I suppose the main question I have here is whether it is grammatically acceptable to use past perfect with present perfect in the way that Amy Tan did. At first I thought it might have been a mistake made by her younger self in an attempt to sound formal (as StoneyB suggested), but as F.E. mentioned, it comes right after her saying, "And then I said in perfect English..."
    – pyobum
    Mar 31 '15 at 9:13
  • @pyobum I did not mean to suggest that the PaPf was wrong, merely that it was unnecessary. Mar 31 '15 at 11:12
  • @StoneyB Ah, I believe I misconstrued your earlier comment. I probably should have left out the part of my question about PaPf being "unnecessary," as I'm more interested in sorting out whether or not it's grammatically acceptable to pair those two up.
    – pyobum
    Mar 31 '15 at 11:32
  • @pyobum, Oh. Thanks for explaining. Well, I find her sentence grammatically correct! Apr 1 '15 at 2:58

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