January 22nd, 2020


Tenses, Past and Present

First, a brief word from our sponsor...

I have a chapter in this book, just published: Contents Tourism and Pop Culture Fandom: Transnational Tourist Experiences. If you're interested in the subject but put off by academic prices, bear in mind that, until the end of January, you can get a 50% discount by using the code CTPTF50 at the checkout. It's the book that grew from the symposium on contents tourism I attended in Tokyo in July 2018, and if the papers I heard there are anything to go by it will be very interesting. My own chapter covers a bit of the same ground as the mega-article on Japan and the Cotswolds that will be appearing in Children's Literature this May (or so), but is not the same. More on the latter when it happens.

We now return you to your regular maundering.

When trying to explain the niceties of English grammar to my Japanese friends, one of the hardest concepts to get across is the use of the pluperfect tense (the perfect is no pushover either). Japanese only has two tenses, you see: past and present/future. How do you explain the pluperfect to someone coming from that starting place? I normally end up having to draw a little timeline with three positions on it, a bit like this:

X (me now [present])--- Y (me two days ago [simple past]) --- Z (me last week - [pluperfect])

We use the pluperfect, I explain, when X wants to say something about Z from Y's point of view. As, for example, when I (X) talk about how I (Y) realised that I (Z) had forgotten to cancel the milk. At this point their eyes glaze over. Why do we need a whole tense for such an abstruse situation? Would it really be confusing if we just put it in the simple past, i.e.: "I realised I forgot to cancel the milk"?

And of course one does hear that latter construction, increasingly frequently, in speech. Is it also entering written English? This post was occasioned by my seeing an American book called Things I Wish I Knew Before Going To Japan. That gave me a bit of a start. If it had appeared in an essay, I would certainly have corrected it to "Things I Wish I Had Known Before Going to Japan" - but which seems better/more natural to you? Is the pluperfect dying out? If so, is its demise a primarily American phenomenon, as yet? Should we mourn it?