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Detective-

What were you doing the day the crime took place?

Suspect-

I woke up a little late day. When I took a look at the clock the first time that morning, I realized I was running late for work. I brushed my teeth, took a shower, and hurried off to work. I was at work the rest of the day.

(This is in chronological order.)

Now, instead of putting what he wanted to convey in chronological order, what if he chose to put it this way:

I realized I was running late for work, looking at the clock for the first time that morning. I had woken up a little late. I took a shower. I had brushed my teeth. And I hurried off to work. I was at work the rest of the day.

If he were to convey what he wanted to convey, putting it this way (the part right above), would it be grammatically correct, and would it mean the same thing?

What other ways, other than putting it chronologically, can what the suspect says be put? I'd appreciate it if you used past perfects more in your example, trying to convey what the suspect says.

  • Your question is very close to a proofreading or editing question, which we can't answer here. To receive a useful answer, I hope you will edit your question to ask something specific about a specific usage. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Jul 31 '16 at 19:00
  • If you want examples of past perfect, this is not the right kind of material to work with. Past perfect is used to place one action before another when there is some relationship (other than temporal) between the two actions. There is no relationship between this 'shopping list' of actions. See here for real examples: learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/quick-grammar/past-perfect – JavaLatte Jul 31 '16 at 19:07
  • "I was running late because I had woken up a little late". Causality relates these two actions, and the use of past perfect indicates which occurred first. – JavaLatte Jul 31 '16 at 19:12
  • When I took a look at the clock the first time ... is temporal gobbledygook. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 31 '16 at 21:08
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    @TRomano , I wouldn't go so far as to say your sense of it is perverse, but it is certainly inaccurate. I can take a look at something multiple times. It means merely examine. There is no temporal component, explicit or implicit, in the idiom. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Aug 1 '16 at 23:28
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Put short: we do not know how to interpret had brushed my teeth. Which reference point in the narrative does it refer to? To the one just mentioned (took a shower) or to the earlier one (I realized). Unless you make that explicit, the sudden had brushed my teeth is intrusive and awkward and impossible to interpret with 100% accuracy.


Keep in mind a few things.

The past simple is used to express each successive event in the past narrative. The reader will presume that each new event follows after the previously mentioned one (unless told otherwise). This is why the suspect's first statement is easy for the reader to interpret. You have told us this is a chronology, but that is what we would have interpreted it to be even if you had not told us.

Next, each event in the past narrative (which, again, are marked by the independent clauses using the past simple) also sets or establishes a reference time or point. And any past perfect will be attached or tethered to a particular reference point by the reader, if there is enough clues in the text to allow her or him to do this. If there are not, then it is bad luck for the reader.

The insertion of the past perfect sentence I had brushed my teeth is unnatural. This is because the previous past perfect I had woken up a little late not only indicates that wake up occurs before I realized... (which so far is the only event in the narrative). I had woken up also prepares the reader to return to the chronology of events, with each consecutive action expressed by the past simple. The sentence I took a shower is fine, because it continues the narrative. Note, the reader will presume that each new event in the past simple takes place after the previous one in the past simple, just as in statement 1. Note also that each added event (which will be expressed by the past simple) establishes a new reference point in the narrative.

At this point you come in with another past perfect I had brushed my teeth. This is sitting there and we do not know how to interpret it. It is not tethered or attached to any previously stated event or reference point in the chronology. Since it follows after I took a shower, I as the reader try to infer that this is the reference point you are talking about that had brushed my teeth is supposed to refer to & thus "come before," but I cannot be sure of that. There is no clear signal to me that that is how I am supposed to interpret it. It is sort of a free-floating past perfect that is not tethered or attached to any specific past reference time. This makes this sentence I had brushed my teeth extremely unnatural and awkward here.

Being a past perfect, it is meant to be interpreted as taking place before some reference point. The problem is that there is now more than one reference point in the chronology. There is I realized... and I took a shower. As a reader I interpret past perfects according to given reference points. Since there's more than one reference point, I have no idea which one you are talking about--grammatically speaking.

To help the reader correctly interpret your intended use of had brushed my teeth, you need to make it explicit which reference point it is supposed to go with. You can do this by writing:

Then before I took a shower, I had brushed my teeth.

The then is useful, because it transitions this new reference point into the sequence of past events. It is also now clear to the reader which reference point you are referring to with this new past perfect had brushed. And at this point, the narration continues, with each newly-stated past event creating a new reference point.

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