Submitted by pebbles  •  March 9, 2011

Past Perfect vs. Past Tense

The following sentence is taken from Advanced English CAE: 

Within seconds Barry, who was wearing enormous rubber boots, had tied a rope to the front bumper of the car and was pulling it out with the tractor.

I’d say: 

Within seconds Barry, who was wearing enormous rubber boots, tied a rope to the front bumper of the car and pulled it out with the tractor. 

Any opinions?

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The first version gives the impression that the action of pulling the car out was ongoing when the sentence is read, whereas the second version gives the impression that the action was already completed.

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Look at the preceding 'The problem now was that the car was filling up with water and mud' and then we have ' ... and was pulling it out with the tractor'. This use of past continuous makes it all happen in front of our eyes, and grammatically justifies the past perfect. Two past simples and the story's over before we've started. No drama. I agree there's no other way to write about him wearing big boots, but my point was that this information seems superfluous in the sequence of events version. In the more active (continuous) version however, it adds to our image of the whole scene unrolling in front of us. For me the narrative intent explains this use of tenses quite clearly.

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I agree. The former, while slightly more "wordy," (to coin an AmE term) is indicative of good story telling and thus good writing. If we were writing this in an incident report for a security company, the simpler version of the latter example would be the way to go. However it would be death-on-paper for any author to use the latter in storytelling as the fluid motion of the narrative would be brought to a screeching halt.

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(BrE) I think the original and your version are both grammatically correct, but whereas the past simple / past simple version simply describes a sequence of events which is now finished, for me at least, the use of past continuous gives the scene more immediacy and suggests, as jayles says, that the action is still in progress.

It also seems to give more meaning to the relative clause - 'who was wearing enormous rubber boots' - as it gives me an image of someone in enormous boots having jumped into the mud a few seconds earlier and who is now in the process of pulling the car out with the tractor. It's just that bit more dramatic.

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I agree with <b>jayles</b>. The second version implies that the whole process of tying the rope and pulling out the car was completed in seconds, which is most unlikely to be true. Pulling a car out of a ditch (or whatever) takes time. The first version implies that what happened in seconds was that the rope was tied and the pulling process was begun, a much more likely scenario. The original version is better.

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I'm not sure if it's possible to evaluate this sentence alone. I think it would depend on the tense of the sentences that came before it.

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Well it might take you more than a few seconds to tie the rope and pull the car out, so it is more likely that Barry was still in the process of pulling it out, hence "was pulling". Thus "within seconds" refers to tying a rope, which process was already complete before the pulling process, and therefore merits past perfect. Clear as mud!

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I want to remind everyone that the past perfect was mainly invented to "intensify" the regular past tense. It is more vivid (i.e., the future more vivid tense for example). I can say, "Someone was doing something" and it is okay, but it is more intensely past if I say, "Someone has done it!" and it is most intensely past when I say, "Someone had done it!"

I know this is like what you learned in first grade, but let's remember the basics, people.

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Oh, that's annoying. I assumed I could give you a reason I thought the former sentence was more correct than the latter, but I cannot seem to articulate it. Yet, I'm sure the former is more correct. If I come up with anything, I'll let you know. I agree with Jayles that if the time framing in the beginning of the sentence were NOT there, it would NOT be necessary to use past perfect.

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The exclamation points are what add "intensity."

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The reason why I find past perfect (had tied) out of place, is precisely because it all happened within seconds, which suggests successive actions.
"within seconds" =after only a few seconds; and I read it: something that is/was yet to come, as opposed to something that had already happened in a specific moment in our past prior to another activity in the past, which is clearly distinguished at the beginning:

“Berry explained that he had been held up by a fallen tree.”
And that’s the reason our guy “had been waiting for him for over an hour.”

"was wearing enormous boots" is simply past continuous = description and there’s no possibility to use a simple tense form here. (note that if you use past perfect continuous, you move the whole event even back in the past)

“was pulling” – maybe it’s the sentence structure (I have the feeling that something is missing), but I don’t get it, even though I’m aware of the fact that pulling the car out of the mud is a process.

the sentence:

...and there was Berry, wearing his enormous boots and pulling the car...

sounds natural, and takes you to the moment itself, so that you see Berry helping our guy solve his car problems.

or
Berry, who was wearing enormous rubber boots, tied a rope to the front bumper of the car and within seconds was pulling it out with a tractor.

I guess it's just how my brain is wired. :)
Although I do understand I cannot find the reasons to justify, or explain, and that's (as scyllacat put it) really annoying.

p.s.
Thanks

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@Zine - Better late than never perhaps. In terms of tenses, the first one, but something seems to be missing. I presume there's a sentence before this one telling us something about the early reactions of newspapers to the Internet. The reason is that the creation of the online version came after not loving the Internet, not the other way round, so you want to use present perfect not past perfect, which would suggest an anterior or previous action. The use of Present perfect also shows that this event is relatively recent.

However, there are two other problems that I can see. The first one is the use of although. In written English, although is not used on its own with a comma like that; it is a conjunction and needs to lead directly into a clause - Although they were taken by surprise by the success of the Internet, most national newspapers have started to fight back. - If you want to start a sentence with a contrast word on its own followed by a comma, you need a conjunctive adverb such as however, nevertheless, on the other hand etc.

The second problem is that it sounds a bit as if the national papers have together created one joint national online version. I think it would be a bit clearer if you put it all into the plural, something like - At first national newspapers were not too enamoured of the Internet. However, most of those that did not previously use to particularly love the Internet have now created online e-versions of their papers. - Note - newspapers which or that, but not who.

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"The first version gives the impression that the action of pulling the car out was ongoing when the sentence is read, whereas the second version gives the impression that the action was already completed."

The above is correct; thus the writer may CHOOSE either to express the meaning accordingly.

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Yes dear, I am fully agree with you. I don't see anything that would justify the use of past perfect tense.

<a href="http://www.theenglishforum.com">Learn English Online

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Cinzia is correct. The original text is ok.


"Within seconds, someone was doing something."
"Within seconds, someone had done something."

Both are possibly true. If the writer wants to convey what was happening as opposed to the results of that thing that was happening, it's the writer's choice.

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Hello, I hope you and everyone around you are doing great; I urgently need your help to tell me wich of the following sentences is correct and why?
1-Although, most of the national newspapers who did not use to love the internet have created an online e nationversion of their paper.
2-Although, most of the national
newspapers who did not use to love the internet had created an online version of their paper.
THANK YOU IN ADVANCE

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I find that the two sentences differ only in the nature of the action - the first variation suggest a certain tone of urgency that fits the sentence well. The other contradicts it by saying he had completed the task 'within seconds' and yet the past tense is so blindingly clear in the passage...so njtt brings up a good point. It doesn't feel right to me in the way that the first one does, hah.

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The first sentence sounds better to me. The sentence is set in a single point in time. This point of time is in the middle of Barry pulling the car out and after the rope is tied. (Note: technically, we don't know how he spent those seconds. He might have picked his nose for the first few seconds, tied the rope in the 4th and 5th second and comed his hair in the last couple of seconds. All we know is that after some seconds the rope was in a state of being tied it was barry was responsible.)

The use of the continuous for the next verb "pulling" agrees with this, as it is also describing the state of affairs at a single instant in time.

Compare this with the second sentence. To say Barry pulled the car out within seconds is just wrong. He might be pulling that thing all day for all we know. All we know is that he started pulling it within seconds of arriving with a bit of rope.

The closest thing in meaning to the first sentence which uses the simple past is, "Within seconds Barry, who was wearing enormous rubber boots, tied a rope to the front bumper of the car and started pulling it out with the tractor."

This last example gives equal importance to the tying and the pulling, but actually the point of the sentence is that he was saving the car by pulling it out. The fact that he had tied the knot is just extra information. The author chose to set this sentence at the moment of the pulling out of the car because that is the important bit, and thus filled in a couple of details of the moments leading up to this point in time using the past perfect.

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The text starts with a guy calling another guy (Barry) to come and help him with a car. In the given example Barry is helping the guy:

I braked to avoid hitting it and the car skidded out of control on the water and mud on the road and into the ditch. I managed to get out through the window. The problem now was that the car was filling up with water and mud. Within seconds Berry, who was wearing enormous rubber boots, had tied a rope to the front bumper of the car and was pulling it out with a tractor.

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Yeah, I agree with you. I don't see anything that would justify the use of past perfect tense. It appears that keeping it simply in past tense would make more sense.

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I think the "had tied" is largely dependent on the "was pulling." It depends on which message you want to send. I imagine the first way to be used if there's more to the story. If you want to end it on that note, I'd use the second.

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@BrockOhBMA -

Sorry, but the function of the past perfect is not 'to intensify' the 'regular' past tense.

Your three sentences have totally different meanings, not simply different intensities, what's more you missed out the 'regular past': past simple:

"Somebody did something." - past simple - the standard and by far the most common past tense - "And then they did something else."

"Someone was doing something." - past continuous for a longer action - "So I went to see what they were doing."

"Someone has done it" - Present Perfect, which far from being more intensely past, connects the past event to the present. (In TEFL it's not even considered a past tense, but a present tense, hence its name) - "Good, so I don't have to do it."

"Someone had done it" - Past Perfect, for indicating that an event happened before another event in the past, and almost always used in conjunction with another verb in the past, usually the Past Simple. - eg: "So I didn't have to do it."

and to round it off:

"Someone had been doing something to the road" - past perfect continuous, for longer actions before the main past action, often used to explain somebody's or something's state. - "It had a nice new surface."

If you want some practice with narrative tenses, google 'The Tragic Tale of Ruddy Wee Hoody' (OK I admit it, it's mine)

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