Simple past tense versus past perfect

One thing that bugs me about Singapore’s English press is grammar. The choice of simple past tense versus the past perfect is tricky, but a concept that a professional journalist should be able to master.

We use past perfect to denote which of two events occurred earlier, like so:

I was here to look for him but he had already left.

I had already left by the time he arrived.

I could pick out a handful of mistakes from each issue of the Straits Times, if I wanted to. Fortunately, I only have access to the free online version, which gives you four free paragraphs per article. So here are some examples of past perfects from today’s Straits Times.

A correct example, by Khushwant Singh, who also resists the urge to use the past perfect again a few paragraphs down.

At the start of the trial on Tuesday, the 26-year-old said that anaesthetist Senaka Liyanage, 37, had approached her from behind before touching her inappropriately…

An incorrect example, written by a David Ee.

Mr Chee had lost both his legs and his left arm in the accident.

What is David’s mistake? There are a few ways of looking at it.

  • The accident and the fact that the unfortunate serviceman lost his limbs refer to the same event.
  • You can make a case for the outcome and the accident being separate, but David uses the word “in” to couple the two situations.
  • There is no ambiguity that needs to be resolved by a past perfect – the accident must come first.

An egregious mistake, by Melody Zaccheus.

A 44-year-old snatch thief who targeted elderly women at housing estates in Jurong West, Jurong East and Boon Lay, was arrested by police at 4pm today.

The man had snatched the gold necklaces of his elderly victims between mid December last year to early January this year.

At first glance, it looks like the past perfect is all right, since there are two events: a crime and an arrest. But the past perfect is again superfluous, because the arrest happened “today”, and the crime before “today”. There is a good reason that past perfect doesn’t often crop up in the non-Singapore English media. The inclusion of times and dates often preclude the need for the past perfect.

A correct, but imperfect example by Khushwant Singh:

Ramli Salleh, 39, was jailed for six months. He had pleaded guilty today in a district court to touching and rubbing his face on the 14-year-old boy’s groin.

Here the past perfect is justified. But the word “today” doesn’t clarify the past perfect efficiently – “earlier” would have been a better choice, and if the concept of “today” is important, it should have been added to the first sentence.

A schoolboy error by an understandably anonymous author:

On December 2, Dr Wijeysingha had written a note on the illegal strike by Chinese bus drivers working for SMRT and in it he had, among others, made allegations that Mr Tan had been either dishonest or deceptive in his handling of the issue.

Here the mistake is obvious. In the first two instances of “had”, there is only one event – the writing of the note – and there is nothing to compare it to. The third instance of “had” (had been) refers to two events, and so the past perfect is correctly used.