Banes of our existence

From Writer Unboxed: Join me on my bender, fellow grammar geeks—here are a few banes of a recovering copyeditor’s existence. Today we’re diving into conjugational tomfoolery of some of American English’s most provocative participles.

I rather like the light tone here, compared to the ranting tone posts like this can take.

The pluperfect is the one I always advise authors to use care with, especially in flashbacks, where it can get a little thick and ridiculous—witness this perfectly correct sentence: “The yogurt she had had had had three weeks to turn green in the sink.” Ah, English, you whimsical little minx.

Pro tip: If you’re writing flashback scenes within a past-tense story, which is often where the pluperfect tense comes creeping in, signal that time shift to readers with a well-placed “had” or two here and there, but then drop it or your writing will seem cluttered

Pluperfect = past perfect, as you probably know. I think it depends on how long the flashback is, but if the flashback scene stretches out over more than a page or two, then yes, I think that’s exactly the way to handle it. I mean, use “had” several times as you ease into the flashback, and probably (I would suggest) several times as you ease back out of it. But within the main part of the flashback, simple past is most likely going to work better, even though I very much doubt you will ever be even mildly tempted to write a sentence with four “hads” in it, especially in a row like that. Actually, that would be a good place to throw in a comma:

The yogurt she had had, had had three weeks to turn green.”

The justification there is the overriding rule for commas — the ur-rule, as it were — which is that, when in doubt, commas should be used in a way that enhances the readability of the sentence. Should you find yourself compelled, for some reason, to use four “hads” in a row, that’s the exact moment at which to remember this ur-rule.

On the other hand, in my opinion, the far more common problem with the past perfect is that a lot of authors won’t use it even when it is entirely appropriate, and that’s really annoying.

Nevertheless, the linked post has a lot of tips like this:

Al Roker may forecast the weather, after which he has also forecast it…at which point it has been forecast. Sweet lord in heaven.

And that kind of phrase kept making me chuckle, so by all means click through and read the whole thing.

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2 thoughts on “Banes of our existence”

  1. An interesting series of articles, and I learned something new from them today about how rules for apostrophes differ between Dutch and English.
    Apparently English never uses apostrophes for plurals, only for possessives.
    Dutch rules for the plural of a word ending in a long-sounding vowel prescribe using an apostrophe before the plural -s if adding that on would shorten the sound of the vowel. The way it’s written prescribes the sound, double vowels and single vowels at the end of a syllable are pronounced long, but single vowels closed off by a consonant are pronounced short.
    So taboo – taboos is OK, the oo stays long.
    But photo – photos would force the second o to be pronounced as the first o in options. To avoid that, in Dutch we add an apostrophe to keep the o long: photo’s.
    That is a Dutch rule which I hadn’t explicitly deduced was incorrect in English.
    Somehow I still appear to partially believe that punctuation is universal, independent of language except for specifics like the upside-down Spanish question-mark. Rules for apostrophes definitely aren’t!

  2. That’s so interesting, Hanneke! About how the apostrophe is used to change the pronunciation.

    For me, taboo is pronounced with a long “oo” sound, but photo is pronounced with both o’s sounding exactly the same, “oh.” It makes no difference whether it’s photo or photos; the -s doesn’t have any effect on the length of the vowel.

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