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When Did You Say That Was?

by Dr. Bob Rich

Some people would be writers, if only they could use grammar. Others are able to produce near faultless English, but still have a blind spot or two. And the most common blind spot concerns that mysterious beast, the past participle.

I don’t know where the name comes from. To me, it sounds icy and rigid. However, the concept it describes is essential. The correct use of the past participle must be in the toolkit of every writer.

Convention is that a story is told in the past tense. This is even true of writing about the future, as in some science fiction novels. A problem arises when, in the course of this, I need to refer to a time before the one being described. Look at this sentence:
‘I went directly home, because I already went to the shop yesterday.’

I know, people actually talk like that. Well, some people do, and if you are quoting people, part of characterization may be to put grammatical glitches into their speech.

Trouble is, some otherwise competent writers actually write like this.

Correct is ‘I went directly home, because I had already gone to the shop yesterday.’

Does it matter?

When I read (or hear) ‘I went directly home, because I already went to the shop yesterday,’ I need to do an extra step of processing before I can understand the sentence. ‘Now’ and ‘yesterday’ are separate times, but are stated as if they had occurred together. I need to note this fact and make allowance for it before I can zero in on the meaning.

This is not a conscious activity, but is a necessary computational step before I can become aware of the writer’s message to me.

Anything that makes the reader’s job harder is wrong.

The past participle is a signal. Signals ease the recipient’s task.

On occasion, a sentence can even become ambiguous because of the lack of a participle or two.

Consider this:

‘She loved John, and when he died she felt guilty for still being alive.’ This could mean that she still loved John after all these years, or it could mean that she’d loved him at the time, though the paid had eased. So, the sentence could be one of two meanings: ‘She loved John, and when he’d died she had felt guilty for still being alive,’ or ‘She’d loved John, and…’ You see, the meaning is quite different.

So, yes, it does matter. Every writer should learn the proper use of the past participle, however boring such a task may seem.

Our tool, our medium, is language. A carpenter will never use a chisel as a screwdriver. A mechanic will use a spanner to turn a nut, leaving the pair of pliers to the amateur. Writers need to be equally meticulous about using the tool appropriate to each task, and for the same reason.

Using the wrong tool spoils the job.

© 2002 by Dr Bob Rich

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