Death by Past Perfect

I recently read a good short story, "Dry Whiskey" by David B. Silva (The Best American Mystery Stories 1999, ed. Ed McBain). The story builds unassumingly to a subtly powerful ending.

However, the author struggles with the use of past perfect tense, enough so that it interferes with a smooth reading experience. Past perfect tense is formed by combining the auxiliary verb had with a verb's past participle (had written, for example). It indicates an action that is completed before some other past action (Jane Austen's 1813 masterpiece was published with the title Pride and Prejudice; Austen had titled it First Impressions).

There are many reasons not to like the past perfect tense. Rarely is it strictly necessary, since past actions can usually be clearly indicated with words like before and after rather than the extra, empty-sounding, and nearly meaningless had. I prefer to use the past perfect only when necessary for precision: to clarify or emphasize that one past action preceded another.

Style tips for past perfect tense

We can explore this further with two paragraphs from Silva's "Dry Whiskey."

My father had started drinking nearly twelve years ago, not long after my mother had died of ovarian cancer. At first, though I was only eleven at the time, I thought I had understood: anything to help forget that bone-thin skeleton, that rictus smile that she had become just before her death. It was an image that haunted me for a long time afterward. And it was an image that had never stopped haunting my father. . . .
My father had let the farm go to hell after my mother had died. It had always been a small farm: four fifty-acre parcels, about two hundred acres altogether. It sat near the base of the foothills, with South Cow Creek flowing lazily along its southern border. He leased out two of the parcels: one for grazing, the other for beehives in the winter months when the bees were dormant and there wasn't much call for pollinating. He had his own small herd, too, about twenty head of cattle, and that was pretty much it.

It's likely obvious, especially if you read these paragraphs aloud, that the past perfect verbs lend a dramatic, blurred tone to the story, but the author has difficulty avoiding confusion and rhythmic missteps. These problems could have been solved by eliminating all unnecessary instances of past perfect.

My father had started drinking nearly twelve years ago: This use of the past perfect is appropriate. Since the story is told in the past tense, had signals that the narrator's father started drinking twelve years before the story takes place, not twelve years before the narrator is telling the story.

. . . not long after my mother had died: The fact that the mother died before the father started drinking is clearly signaled by the phrase not long after. Past perfect is not needed here.

At first . . . I thought I had understood: This use of past perfect is not only excessive, it's backward. If the narrator understood in the past, he also thought in the past, and the correct phrasing would be At first I had thought I understood.

It was an image that had never stopped haunting my father: I think this usage could be successfully argued either way.

My father had let the farm go to hell after my mother had died: If this phrase were an equation, it would be a case of two negatives being multiplied to equal a positive—the past perfect is essentially meaningless. Note that the paragraph this sentence begins doesn't directly follow the first paragraph I quoted; there is intervening narrative in the past tense. So the first instance of had is not wrong, since it establishes that the father let the farm go prior to the action of the current story. However, the meaning of the phrase would arguably be just as clear without the past perfect tense. If the only had in the sentence preceded died, it could again be argued either way. But a second instance of had is meaningless. Past perfect needs a reference point in the actions it precedes. In this sentence, the first instance of past perfect sets the context of things happening before the events of the story; it can't be further used to say that the mother died before the things that happened before the events of the story.

It had always been a small farm: Silva could have written It was always a small farm, but he uses past perfect here to emphasize the farm's established character.

He had his own small herd: This is, of course, not past perfect at all; had is the main rather than auxiliary verb. But note how amidst the abundance of hads in this story, the use of it to mean owned is simply one more empty-sounding word added to the pile. If Silva had streamlined his tenses, this word would have an appropriate sense of purpose.

Now let's rewrite the paragraphs, removing all unnecessary instances of the past perfect tense.

My father had started drinking nearly twelve years ago, not long after my mother died of ovarian cancer. At first, though I was only eleven at the time, I thought I understood: anything to help forget that bone-thin skeleton, that rictus smile that she became just before her death. It was an image that haunted me for a long time afterward. And it was an image that never stopped haunting my father. . . .
My father let the farm go to hell after my mother died. It had always been a small farm: four fifty-acre parcels, about two hundred acres altogether. It sat near the base of the foothills, with South Cow Creek flowing lazily along its southern border. . . . He had his own small herd, too, about twenty head of cattle, and that was pretty much it.

Ta-dah! The paragraphs are crisper and more powerful, while containing just enough of the blurry quality Silva was going for.


The rule

Use the past perfect tense (had + past participle) only to indicate action completed before another past action.

Style suggestion

Use past perfect sparingly. It can be confusing or meaningless if overused.