Using Had: the Past Perfect Tense

A reader wanted to know how to use the word had in relation to verb tense, so I’m going to try to give a simple, short answer to her question. I think what the reader was asking about was the past perfect tense.

The past perfect is used when two events happened in the past, with one past action having occurred even before the other past action. To form the past perfect, use had and the past participle of a verb in one part of the sentence. Often, the regular past tense is used in the other part of the sentence.

Sally had agreed to wait in the pumpkin patch with Linus before she realized that there was no such thing as the Great Pumpkin. Both events happened in the past—agreeing to wait in the pumpkin patch and realizing that there was no Great Pumpkin—but the agreeing happened even before the realizing, so we have to use the past perfect tense for the agreeing part and the regular past tense for the realizing part.

We might be tempted to say Sally agreed to wait in the pumpkin patch with Linus before she realized that there was no such thing as the Great Pumpkin, but we’d be wrong. Just using the regular past tense for both parts of the sentence doesn’t work because one event happened before the other event.

Here are some other examples:

  • The telephone rang after we had left the house. (Both the phone ringing and the leaving occurred in the past, but one occurred even more in the past than the other.)
  • He had been to Paris, so I asked him whether I could get by without learning French. (He went to Paris in the past—he’s now back—and I asked him a question in the past.)
  • By the time Lucy woke up, Linus had fallen asleep in the pumpkin patch.


Sherry’s Grammar List and Paul’s book–Literally, the Best Language Book Ever

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Blame it on Lewis Carroll

A reader requested the following explanation: “…Perhaps you can tell me what word is used when a part of one word is combined with part of another word to form a whole new word.”

Well, the short answer would have been NEOLOGISM, which certainly would apply since a neologism can be a new word, a new meaning, or a new usage. Back in 2009, Paul and I did an article for Forbes magazine for a special series on neologisms; we mostly talked about words for which the meanings have shifted rather than actual new creations——–but I digress in the name of self-promotion.

Neologism would be an appropriate general answer, but there’s a more specific answer that I think might apply. It’s called PORTMANTEAU. While a portmanteau was originally——and still is——-a leather bag with two compartments for carrying clothing while traveling, it is also two words that have been combined to make a new word that combines the meanings of both original words. The use of portmanteau in this way can be attributed to Lewis Carroll, who first used it toward the end of the 19th century. Wikipedia has a detailed history of the word portmanteau. For those interested in language, I recommend it.


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No Exclusions!

I recently received a  flier in the mail from a department store whose goal it was to alert me to their latest sale offer. Their big news was that I could get 10 dollars off my sale or clearance purchases of at least 25 dollars.

In large, red letters, the ad proudly proclaimed NO EXCLUSIONS ON APPAREL! (Yes, that exclamation point was theirs, not mine.) Wow! No exclusions on apparel. I decided to take a look. That’s when it became apparent that their marketing staff was trying to use language as a way to be a little less than forthright.

Under the NO EXCLUSIONS! promise was smaller red print that read (except specials and super buys). On another part of the ad, it read TUESDAY OR WEDNESDAY ‘TIL 1 P.M. Tucked away on the bottom of the ad, I was informed that I couldn’t get the 10 dollars off on any morning specials.

So, I thought, let me get this straight: I need to spend at least 25 dollars—-on either Tuesday or Wednesday——–until 1 o’clock——but if it’s a special, a morning special, or a super buy, then I can forget the whole thing.

I opened the catalogue to get a closer look at my potential choices only to find an item of APPAREL that was NEITHER A SPECIAL NOR A SUPER BUY but was, indeed, on sale on both TUESDAY AND WEDNESDAY. It read underneath CANNOT USE 10-DOLLAR COUPON.

The moral of the story: If you’re going to say NO EXCLUSIONS ON APPAREL!, then that’s what it should be; otherwise, saying NO EXCLUSIONS is, quite frankly, a lie. This is a wonderful example of using language to mislead rather than to communicate honestly. For the one promise of 10 dollars off, I found 3 caveats and one blatant exclusion on one page.

It’s enough to make a person want to say “what does NO EXCLUSIONS ON APPAREL! mean?”


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Verb Moods: Indicative, Imperative, Subjunctive. What Mood Are You In?

Verbs can have one of three moods: indicative, imperative, or subjunctive.

The indicative mood only includes verbs in sentences that are either statements (declarative sentences) or questions (interrogative sentences).

  • It is unfortunate that more people do not live their lives in the spirit of The Golden Rule.
  • Why don’t more people live their lives in the spirit of The Golden Rule?

Sentences of either command or strong request are sentences in which the verb is in the imperative mood. Often, the subject of an imperative mood sentence is not written into the sentence but, rather, is an implied “you.”

  • Stop interrupting me!
  • Be careful up there.

The subjunctive mood is used for several things:

1) When saying something that is contrary to fact; that is, when using verbs of wishing or wanting, use the subjunctive.

  • I wish I were 18 again.

2) When one part of the sentence holds true only if the first part of the sentence occurs, use the subjunctive.

  • If he were taller, then he’d be president.

3) When the sentence is a recommendation, use the subjunctive.

  • The committee recommends that you be dismissed immediately.


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Leave and Let: Either Leave It Alone or Let It Go

Do not mistakenly use let for leave. This leads to another common grammar error in English. Of course, as is true for most words, there are other and nuanced meanings (I’m just going to stick to what is needed for our purposes), but generally, to let means to allow and is often used with the infinitive of a verb. To leave means to depart or to allow to remain and often takes the –ing form of the verb after it.


  • Incorrect: Let me alone.
  • Correct: Leave me alone.
  • Incorrect: Let it sitting on the stove.
  • Correct: Leave it sitting on the stove.
  • Incorrect: Leave it sit on the stove.
  • Correct: Let it sit on the stove.
  • Incorrect: Leave it be.
  • Correct: Let it be (just like the old Beatles song).


Paul’s book–Literally, the Best Language Book Ever;

Sherry’s Grammar List

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Past or Passed: When the Past Has Passed

Use past to refer to the time that came before now or to refer to beyond something in distance. His ten years of working for a corporation with a bad reputation is in the past (the time before now). Their past (the time before now) poor treatment of employees has come back to haunt them. She drove past (beyond something in the distance) the building.

Use passed as the past tense (Yes, that’s right—the tense that happened before now) of the verb to pass. I passed the building. She passed on a job offer from the company because of its poor reputation. He passed judgment on the case. Because of her youthful looks, she passed for someone much younger.

Whenever you can use pass in the present tense, use passed for the past tense. For the above sentences, we’d have I pass the building, She passes on a job offer, He passes judgment, She can pass for someone younger.


Paul’s book–Literally, the Best Language Book Ever;

Sherry’s Grammar List

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Could Care Less or Couldn’t Care Less; Do You Care?

How many times have you heard someone say I could care less? For every time you’ve heard it, have you wondered why the person saying it COULD care less about something he seemingly doesn’t care about at all?

The correct saying is I couldn’t care less–which, considering the context within which it’s always said, makes more sense.

I could care less if you’re breaking up with me means that you’re admitting that you do care about being tossed aside like yesterday’s newspaper.  And while we all probably do care when that happens to us, we usually don’t want the other person to know, so we say I couldn’t care less (not I COULD care less), meaning, Here’s your hat; what’s your hurry?

I could care less means that you actually could care less than you do, which means that you do, in fact, care. I couldn’t care less means that you could not care any less than you do.

That’s the correct usage—in case you care.


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