Go Back   WritersBeat.com > Writing Craft > The Reference Room > Grammar

Past and Past Participle

Thread Tools
Old 03-05-2009, 10:43 AM
HoiLei's Avatar
HoiLei (Offline)
Draw, o coward!
Join Date: Jul 2008
Location: "In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina..."
Posts: 4,797
Thanks: 183
Thanks 484
Default Past and Past Participle

Many beginning writers confuse the simple past tense with past participle (a.k.a. "past perfect"). That's understandable; we don't use the past participle form too often in speech! In writing, though, it's very important to establish precise times. Indulge me while I try to draw timelines with text.

Past tense means something happened in the past:


Yesterday, I walked[X] to school.
I went[X] to Canada for vacation.

Past Participle (the one with "had" and the participle form of the verb) means that something happened in the past before something else in the past.


I had walked[Y] to school, so I was[X] tired.
She said[X] her father had come[Y] home late that night.
"Were[X] you drunk that night?" "Well, I'd been[Y] drinking a lot..."

NOTE: Don't confuse the past participle "had" with the past tense verb "had". "We had lots of friends" is not past participle! The "had" there means "possessed".

For learning this, it's best to have sentences that are exactly the same except for tense.

1) Dean had worked(past participle) through the summer and had paid(past participle) for his car.

2) Dean worked(past) through the summer and paid(past) for his car.

3) Dean had worked(past participle) through the summer and paid(past) for his car.

Sentence 1 says both the working and the paying were done in the past, before some other event. S2 is right, too; it says that the working and paying are both past, but not before anything else. S3 could go two ways. It could mean the story is simple past ("Dean paid for his car"), and the working part was definitely done before. Or, we could consider the first "had" to apply to both verbs, in which case they're both past participle.

4) The thieves had broken(past participle) into her apartment, and her jewelry was(past) missing.

5) The thieves broke(past) into her apartment, and her jewelry was(past) missing.

In S4, we know the break-in was first, the jewelry being missing is second, and they're both done. We can infer that the thieves stole the jewelry. In S5, we don't know whether the break-in happened before or after or at the same time. It could mean that the thieves broke in, but there was nothing to steal because the jewelry was already missing.

Most fiction is written in simple past, so the past participle only needs to be used for short memories or backstory. Using it is a balancing act: you don't want all those "hads" if they're not necessary. They get redundant to read.

If you find your backstory getting long and laden with past participles, you have a couple of options. You could switch the whole thing to a flashback, since flashbacks are often told in the same tense as the rest of the story. (Flashbacks are usually set off with italics or line breaks, depending on how long they are.) This avoids the past participle altogether.

Example - Flashback:
"You want my wallet?" Jason asked(past) the mugger. His mind swirled(past) with fear. Angry faces, hard hands slamming him into brick--"Hand it over!" the man snarled(past, but the italics say this is a flashback), spit spraying Jason's face.

Or, you could start with past participle, then transition via dialogue to simple past, as long as you remind the readers somewhere that it's participle.

Example - Dialog:
__Johnny sighed, remembering Denise's wedding. He had never understood his sister. (Past participle says we're about to go back in time.)
__"Johnny! I'm so glad you came!" Denise, resplendent in white satin, kissed the air on both sides of his head. (Now we're in simple past, but we know it's really a past participle situation. The word "remembering" and the one past participle are enough to say this happened before the main narrative's past tense.)

The past participle is complex, but it's just part of the language. Writers should know how to use it. That said, if you use too many "hads", it can sound clunky. Sometimes something can be technically correct and still sound clunky. The best thing to do is to learn what makes grammar right. Then read a lot, and absorb what makes writing work.

"I just saved 100% on my car insurance by switching to walking!"
To view links or images in signatures your post count must be 10 or greater. You currently have 0 posts.

Last edited by HoiLei; 03-05-2009 at 11:38 PM.. Reason: Typo. Thanks, SW, for pointing it out!
The Following 19 Users Say Thank You to HoiLei For This Useful Post:
akina (04-03-2010), Alex_M (11-06-2011), Atreus (06-07-2009), Beneveto (02-19-2014), cass27 (04-12-2011), elia123 (09-21-2009), Gwyndolin (07-02-2010), kannet (08-07-2013), LadyDomino (02-27-2011), mynameis (06-15-2011), nzfiona (03-26-2010), PeteMalicki (03-06-2009), RoteImpulse (02-16-2011), Teancor (03-05-2009), theepicwinner (07-04-2010), Tonks est morte (12-06-2010), Tuatha (03-25-2009)

  WritersBeat.com > Writing Craft > The Reference Room > Grammar

Thread Tools

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off

Similar Threads
Thread Thread Starter Forum Replies Last Post
Creep World (WIP) MalReynolds Fiction 21 09-07-2017 06:06 AM
had or not to had Teancor Writing Help & Issues 6 06-15-2011 02:06 PM
Just for me. Tom Lyrics 3 12-25-2008 12:12 PM
You promised me. puresnow Fiction 17 11-12-2008 01:07 AM

All times are GMT -8. The time now is 10:25 PM.

vBulletin, Copyright 2000-2006, Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd.