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The novel is in past tense and the character is recounting things that happened before the novel began. Should I be using the past participle? Everything I read says that using the word "had" is a big no-no, despite its necessary existence to denote time and structure.

For example: "She closed the book. Her father had given it to her as a gift three months ago. When she had first read it, it had given her goosebumps."

Is that fine? Or should it all be in active simple present despite happening before the events occurring in the novel?

For example: "She closed the book. Her father gave it to her as a gift three months ago. When she first read it, it gave her goosebumps."

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It's been mentioned on this board before, but rules which arbitrarily declare any part of a language off-limits are ridiculous. They may be meant to give guardrails to new writers, but all they end up doing is making people frantic that they are Breaking A Rule. So ignore that idea.


In this instance, past tense vs. past participle indicates actions that took place in the past, but one is the "present" of the novel and the other is a completed action farther back in the past.

To elucidate:

She closed the book. Her father had given it to her as a gift three months ago. When she had first read it, it had given her goosebumps.

She closed the book is in the present of the story, even if it's being told in past tense. It's what she just did right now.

Three months ago, her father gave her a book. Three months ago (or less), she read the book, and she got goosebumps.

Those actions took place in the distant past, and they were completed. To separate them from the "present-past" of the story's actions, you use the past participle.

Your other example is a little trickier. Let's break it up:

She closed the book.

Present of the story.

Her father gave it to her as a gift three months ago.

This tense doesn't work. Gave in this specific sentence is the present of the story. You need to use had given.

When she first read it, it gave her goosebumps.

This can be parsed as "a continuing action in the past," as opposed to "a completed action in the past." It had given her goosebumps means it happened and it's done. Because you're using When here, it indicates that the actions happened farther back in the past, so you can get away with the "present-past" of she first read it, it gave her goosebumps. She's kind of remembering being back at that moment and reliving it.

Try setting your sentences in the present tense as an experiment and see if that makes it clearer:

She turns the final page with a sigh, closes the book, and hugs it to her chest. Her father had given it to her as a gift three months ago. When she had first read it, it had given her goosebumps.

versus:

She turns the final page with a sigh, closes the book, and hugs it to her chest. Her father gave it to her as a gift three months ago. When she first read it, it gave her goosebumps.

No matter what, Her father gave simply doesn't ring right. It has to be Her father had given.

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Lauren's analysis is excellent. But there is one thing to add. Language is not a machine. It does not work by machine rules. It works by context and suggestion.

Her father had given it to her...

This sentence establishes the context of what follows it. The use of had here is essential because it establishes the context of the gift in relationship to the narrative present (the time of the story).

Mechanically speaking, everything that follows that sentence is past relative to the narrative present, so requires had as well. But contextually it does not because the work of establishing the relationship between times has been done. Therefore you can drop the had, which does make the sentences a little clunky to read, without the reader losing track of which time they refer to.

Everything Lauren says about '"a continuing action in the past," as opposed to "a completed action in the past."' is true, but ask yourself if the distinction matters. Does it matter in context if the book gave her goosebumps then but not now or if it still gave her goosebumps? If it does, make that distinction explicitly. Don't rely on the reader to get it from the grammar. If it does not matter, don't fret about it. If it does matter, you could do something like this:

She closed the book her father gave her. It no longer gave her goosebumps the way it had when she first read it three months ago.

In other words, if the change in her reaction is what matters, thump the reader over the head with the idea that her reaction has changed. If you don't, most reader simply will not notice.

Also notice that there is no need for "had given" in this passage (though it would certainly fit). The time relationship is established by "three months ago" in the next sentence. It is established using story techniques, not grammatical techniques.

Readers simply don't parse sentences the way grammarians do (this is why grammarians walk around the world in a state of constant agitation at the way things are written). They parse stories, looking for the sequences they expect and recognizing them were they find them. They follow the story cues, not the grammar cues. Thus having cast us into the past with "had" in the first sentence, you can safely drop it for the remainder of the passage (unless there are other sources of ambiguity in that passage that might cast doubt on the context -- but if there are you should probably recast as people are going to get lost anyway).

To put it another way: grammar establishes simple meaning. It establishes which words are which part of speech in a sentence so that you can parse the sentence. Grammar also reflects more complex meanings (the time relationship of one event to another) but should not be relied upon to communicate such relationships fully to the reader. Use story technique, not grammatical techniques, to establish the relationships that matter. Just make sure your grammar is not actively at odds with what the story techniques are saying.

(By the way, this is why it is possible to detect when the grammar of a sentence is wrong. The story techniques are saying one thing, which comes across despite the flaws in the grammar. Thus we know what the sentence is trying to say, and can therefore deduce what the conventional grammatical way to say that would be. If this were not the case, if meaning relied on grammar alone, we would be unable to detect or fix incorrect grammar because we would have no way to detect the writers intent. We would just have a sentence we did not understand. We would have no clue to what it was trying to say or how to fix it.)

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  • "this is why grammarians walk around the world in a state of constant agitation at the way things are written." THIS IS SO, SO VERY TRUE. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Apr 18 '18 at 17:51
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English tenses are too complex to be summed up in simple rules. What you have written is correct. Many things in English are 'correct', but they are not necessarily the best thing.

I teach students to stick to one tense or another, until they can move between them for effect. As an example, 'had given', the past perfect tense, suggests that an action happened before another action. However, 'gave' is a past simple where an action started and finished in the past, suggesting that something happened regularly in the past.

You could rephrase part of what you said: 'When she read it, it was giving her goosebumps / it gave her goosebumps / it had given her goosebumps / it had been giving her goosebumps.' The effect of using each tense -- past progressive, past simple, past perfect, past perfect progressive -- is different. What is right depends on what you want the reader to think, feel and believe.

An added complication: past tense narratives can contain sections in what is sometimes called the present historic tense to create tension. For example: He stepped out onto the ledge. He takes one step at a time. He doesn't look down. He doesn't think. He just does it.

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