Submitted by Jasper  •  September 13, 2013

Past vs. past perfect

I had always wondered about a construction (of conjugation within a sentence) but never could write it down properly. I have since found that construction. This is a quote from “The Day It Happened” by Rosario Morales.

A) “I wouldn’t have known anything about any of this [if Olga next door hadn't rung our doorbell and banged on the door just when Mami was too deep in prayer to hear and Maria was leaning out over the sill with her eyes bugging out].”

Specifically the verbs in that clause. My question here is why is “when Mami was... and Maria was...” past tense instead of past perfect. I’m perfectly aware that the actions of Mami and Maria are happening simultaneously with Olga’s banging of the door. I concluded that it was because that it would be interpreted further in the past than Olga’s banging. But I have supposed I’m looking for a logical consistency similar to math.

Comments Sort by:   Oldest first  •  Latest first  •  Rating

Well we've got three tenses (or forms if you prefer):

past perfect - 'hadn't rung' and '(hadn't) banged'
past simple - 'was'
past continuous - 'was leaning out'

The first thing to sort out is why we are using past perfect. This is often used to express a past event which happened before another past event - 'It was my first time in a big city and I'd never seen so much traffic before.'

But this is not the case here. The past perfect is being used here as the standard verb form of the if-clause of a past hypothetical conditional, what in TEFL/TESL we call a Third Conditional - 'If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I'd never have believed it.'

And in this case the result clause (or main clause) is 'I wouldn’t have known anything about any of this'

Or to make it more like my example - 'If Olga hadn't rung our doorbell, I wouldn’t have known anything about this'

This is a case of 'unreal' past, where the tense used doesn't reflect the actual time, just as we use a past tense in a present (or future) hypothetical conditional (or Second Conditional) - 'If I got married I'd move into a bigger flat'.

But in this case the if-clause is further divided, with a main part - 'if Olga next door hadn't rung our doorbell and banged on the door' - and a time clause - 'just when Mami was too deep in prayer to hear and Maria was leaning out over the sill with her eyes bugging out'.

The important thing (as you mention) is that these past events are all happening at the same time, in the normal past. Olga banged on the door at the same time as mami was deep in prayer and Maria was leaning out of the window.

If the verbs in this time clause had also been in past perfect, it would have seemed as though these actions had happened before the main action (the standard use of past perfect), rather than at the same time. Incidentally, that sentence was another Third Conditional.

For example, if it had said:

'if Olga next door hadn't rung our doorbell and banged on the door just when Mami had been too deep in prayer to hear and Maria had been leaning out over the sill with her eyes bugging out' - it would sound as though mami had been deep in prayer earlier and as if Maria had been leaning out of the window some time before but was no longer doing so. In fact with 'just when' it wouldn't really make any sense in this context.

We can use a time clause with past perfect when it makes sense to do so. -

'Just as (or when) I'd got used to her strange ways, she upped sticks and left'- but here the action in the past perfect really did happen before that in the main clause. I got used to her strange ways and then she left.

Time clauses often don't take the same tense as the main clause, for example future time clauses are expressed with a present tense - I'll tell him when I see him', not 'I'll tell him when I will see him'.

Actually, I now see you pretty well answered your own question in your last sentence.

0 vote Vote!  •  URL to this comment  •  Report Abuse

Addendum - there's also one type of construction when we can even use past perfect for something that didn't happen *after* the main event - 'And having told him what she thought of him, she left the room before he'd had time to think of a suitable reply'

0 vote Vote!  •  URL to this comment  •  Report Abuse

@Warsaw Will

I don't quite understand your second post. You say, "...that didn't happen *after* the main event..." Do you mean before there or could you elaborate?

0 vote Vote!  •  URL to this comment  •  Report Abuse

Hi Jasper, this is a weird one, and no, I do mean after, although the action started before. Writing about time clauses on my blog I wrote 'Occasionally we use Past Perfect with before to talk about the completion of an event which started earlier but finished later than the other event.

"She stormed out of the room before I had even finished what I was saying."

The order of events are:

1. I started to say something
2. She stormed out of the room
3. I didn't manage to finish what I was saying

In MyGrammarLab Advanced (Mark Foley and Diane Hall), they say - 'With before + past perfect, the action in the past simple happens first: "I left university before I'd finished the course I was taking",' and go on to say 'we can use this pattern for a past action which prevented a later action from happening: "She sacked him before he'd had the chance to explain" '.

Their first example, where they've used past continuous rather than past perfect is quite interesting in relation to your question. Apropos, that was a really good question, and has inspired me to try and write a blog post on time clauses within if-clauses in conditionals.

My conclusions so far are that we use real past rather than unreal past in time clauses in past hypotheticals (third conditional), and present probable conditionals (first conditional), and was leaning towards the idea that that could be the principle, but it rather looks as though we use unreal past in present hypotheticals (second conditional), which rather puts the kybosh on that.

As far as I can see, these sound more natural keeping with the unreal past, than with present tenses. What do you think?

If you saw a deer while you were (are) out walking, what would you do?
If she turned up out of the blue when you least expected(expect) it, what would you do?
If we arrived at the party after everyone had left (has left), it would be very embarrassing
If we arrived at the party before it had (has) really got going, it would be equally embarrassing

1 vote Vote!  •  URL to this comment  •  Report Abuse

Once one recognises that the simple 'past' in English includes an unmarked 'unreal' (or subjunctive) meaning, it is easier to go along with just choosing whatever verb form best fits the context (put forward by Michael Lewis in the lexical approach). First, second and third conditionals are to me but an intermediate crutch for non-native speakers. In the above sentences using a (real) present confuses the reader as to whether the situation is unreal or not.

0 vote Vote!  •  URL to this comment  •  Report Abuse

@jayles - Thank you for confirming my suspicions, but why then doesn't that apply to time clauses in 3rd conditional, where we are using a 'real past', not an 'unreal' one?

Conditionals cause problems for students at all levels, so I wouldn't accept your 'intermediate crutch' description. I know it's fashionable to knock 1,2,3, but it has its uses, is flexible (increase in tense possibilities at higher levels) and probably covers the vast majority of conditional sentences that students are likely to need. I did a little experiment with The Little Prince, and 70% of the conditional sentences there fell into the 1,2,3 pattern, and nearly all conditionals where the result depends on the condition fit into this pattern.

Here are some that don't fit:

'If you're hungry, there's some ham in the fridge'
'If Mike didn't do it, who earth did?'
'If Sam doesn't like jazz, he should have said so.'
'If she hasn't called, she could have lost our number.'
'If I'm to get this essay done, I'll have to forget about going to the pub tonight.'

But none of these involve a real condition and result. At least three mean 'if it's the case that'

In fact, if native speakers had also learnt this system, there might not have been so much nonsense written on the Internet about Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars. Many of those (correctly) commenting on forums that Snow Patrol were absolutely correct have in fact been foreign learners, who seem to understand the theory of conditionals rather better than many native speakers.

0 vote Vote!  •  URL to this comment  •  Report Abuse

@WW I am not blackening the 123 approach; it is a much-needed crutch at intermediate and i use it religiously. Indeed one cannot move on till this has been mastered, and it does provide a platform. And for many non-native speakere that's quie enough.
The real question, as you pointed out, is what percentage of situations does it cover. I remember reading somewhere that this could be as low as 55% (sorry, can't remember where); so at some stage, as you say, one has to address this reality; and the only way to do it is to make it clear that the 123 approach is an (over?) simplification. That is, without actually saying "well it's all bollocks" ;0))
Just to muddy the waters, I believe French Canadians are perfectly happy to put "will" or "would" in the "if" clause and consider that "correct". This can be very undermining if one is paired with a teacher from Quebec.
I must add that in speaking or writing a foreign language I find the odd mistake with tense is not the issue; being able to come up with the right vocab off the cuff is what really makes a difference to communication.

0 vote Vote!  •  URL to this comment  •  Report Abuse

@jayles - I'm not sure that the rest really are a problem, as students might well not use 'if' in their L1 in these circumstances, and I've never had a problem where a student is trying to analyse one of these, and gets bothered because they can't fit it into one of the five categoeries (0,1,2,3,Mixed)

By far the biggest problem, at every level I'd say, is will and would after if.

0 vote Vote!  •  URL to this comment  •  Report Abuse

@WW "By far the biggest problem, at every level I'd say, is will and would after if."
And amen to that - at least for Eurolanguage speakers.
For non-Euros one needs "Learner English" Swan CUP. a mine of useful stuff.

0 vote Vote!  •  URL to this comment  •  Report Abuse

Your Comment