When we speak of one past event that happened before another past event, one way to denote the earlier event is by use of the past perfect tense. When should we use the past perfect, and when is it not required? This is a tricky issue. First, four practice Sentence Correction questions.
1) James Joyce wrote the novel Ulysses through the teens and published it in 1922, although in 1906, when he was finishing the short story collection Dubliners, he had considered the addition of another story about the canvasser Bloom, who was Jewish and who later was the title Ulysses character.
(A) he had considered the addition of another story about the canvasser Bloom, who was Jewish and who later was the title Ulysses character.
(B) he had been considering that he add an additional extra story, the Jewish canvasser Bloom, and to later make him the Ulysses‘ title character.
(C) considering the inclusion of the story of Bloom, the Jewish canvasser who would become the Ulysses title character later
(D) he considered including another story about the Jewish canvasser Bloom, who later would be the title character of the Ulysses
(E) he considered adding the Jewish canvasser Bloom’s story, and Bloom later would have become the Ulysses title character
2) Long before Thomas Edison made a long-lasting and commercially viable incandescent lightbulb, the British chemist Sir Humphry Davy in 1802 created the first prototype of the lightbulb, that was too bright and burned out too quickly.
(A) in 1802 created the first prototype of the lightbulb, that was
(B) made the first prototype in 1802, but it was
(C) had created in 1802 the first prototype of the lightbulb, although this would be
(D) had created the 1802 prototype, the first one, which had been
(E) in 1802 had made the first prototype, but this would be
3) In 1871, Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, and before that, Gregor Mendel already had discovered the principles of genetics, using his famous pea plant experiments, and ultimately they would explain and justify Darwin’s conclusions.
(A) In 1871, Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, and before that, Gregor Mendel already had discovered the principles of genetics, using his famous pea plant experiments, and ultimately they would explain and justify Darwin’s conclusions
(B) By the time Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man in 1871, Gregor Mendel already had discovered, during his famous pea plant experiments, the genetic principles that ultimately would explain and justify Darwin’s conclusions
(C) Gregor Mendel already discovered the principles of genetics during his famous pea plant experiments, and although later Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man in 1871, these principles ultimately would explain and justify the conclusions of Darwin.
(D) With Charles Darwin publishing The Descent of Man in 1871, Gregor Mendel discovered already before this the principles of genetics during his famous pea plant experiments, principles that ultimately would explain and justify the conclusions of Darwin
(E) Before Charles Darwin publishing The Descent of Man in 1871, already Gregor Mendel had conducted the famous pea plants experiments and had discovered the principles of genetics, but these principles ultimately would explain and justify Darwin’s conclusions
4) Had the quantitative skills of Boustrophedon’s CEO been on par with his extraordinary intuition in negotiations, he would not have needed such a brilliant expert in finance as his CFO.
(A) Had the quantitative skills of Boustrophedon’s CEO been on par with his extraordinary intuition in negotiations
(B) If the Boustrophedon’s CEO’s quantitative skills equaled his extraordinary negotiation intuition
(C) In the case that the quantitative skills of Boustrophedon’s CEO were comparable to his extraordinary skill of using intuition in negotiations
(D) If Boustrophedon’s CEO’s skills for quantitative material were on par to his extraordinary intuition in negotiations
(E) If the quantitative skills of Boustrophedon’s CEO were a comparable ability for his extraordinary intuition in negotiations
Complete explanations will follow this article.
The past perfect tense
First of all, here are two previous posts:
As you may remember, or as may have been reminded in reading one of those two blogs, the pat perfect tense indicates an action that precedes another past action. It is one way to indicate a sequence of events, all of which are in the past. For example
5) George Washington was a skilled military commander at the outset of the American Revolution because he had gained extensive battlefield experience in the French and Indian War.
In this example sentence, the verb “had gained” is in the past perfect, to make clear that it indicates an action before the time of the verb “was.” If you know American history, you might have known that the French and Indian War ended about a decade before the American Revolutionary War began. That knowledge is outside this sentence, and of course, such outside knowledge is not required to understand GMAT SC questions, so if sentence #5 were a sentence in a GMAT SC question, the use of the past perfect would tell us all we need to know about which action came first.
Necessary or redundant?
The past perfect tense is definitely one way to indicate that one past action was before another, but it’s not the only way to do so. Consider this sentence,
Notice that this sentence gives us two different ways to know that the events in the second half of the sentence were earlier in time. One is use of the past perfect, and the other is simply the dates given. We know that 1960 happened before 1968: unlike sentence #5, this sentence supplies us with the exact historical information so we know the years when events happened. We don’t need outside knowledge, as we would have with #5.
In a way, this is a kind of redundancy, because the information about which event was earlier is given in two different ways. It’s not as glaring as other forms of redundancy, but it’s certainly suspicious to the GMAT. The GMAT will often consider use of the past perfect tense incorrect if there are other clear indicators of time sequence in the sentence. In all likelihood, the GMAT would prefer this version:
6b) Richard Nixon was elected US President in 1968, but as the incumbent Vice President he ran in 1960 and was defeated by John F. Kennedy.
This version, with the verbs of the second half in the simple past tense, is no longer redundant: only the dates given indicate the sequence. As a general rule, if dates or other indications in the sentence clearly let us know the sequence of events, then the use of the past perfect is certainly not necessary and may be considered redundant and incorrect.
The past perfect tense involves the use of the auxiliary verb “had” before the past participle form of the main verb. In formal writing, this opens up an alternative possible structure for conditionals.
Typically, conditional statements start with the word “if.” If the verb employs the auxiliary verb “had,” “should,” or “were,” we can construct a conditional statement by omitting the word “if” and putting the auxiliary verb before the subject. Consider this standard conditional sentence.
7a) If I had known beforehand about the full cost of the program, I never would have joined.
That is a 100% grammatical correct sentence, but it is a bit prosaic. It is completely factual and lacking in elegance. By contrast, consider this sophisticated rewrite.
7b) Had I known beforehand about the full cost of the program, I never would have joined.
This conveys precisely the same factual information, but unlike it’s prosaic partner #7a, this version has an air of sophistication. Similarly,
8) Should he win the first round, he will find the competition in the second round considerably more daunting.
9) Were I President of the US, I would make “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” the national anthem.
These are further examples of conditional statements in which the word “if” has been dropped and the auxiliary verb moved to the beginning of the sentence. Again, this is a very sophisticated structure, typical of high quality writing. Don’t be surprised to find this on the GMAT Sentence Correction.
If the ideas discussed here gave you any insights into the practice questions at the top, you may want to look at them again before reading the explanations below. As you read GMAT RC practice and sophisticated reading unrelated to the GMAT, notice when the past perfect is and isn’t used, and notice the sophisticated conditional structure discussed in the last section.
Practice Question Explanations
Because we have years, the past perfect tense is not necessary.
(A) This is grammatically correct but long-winded and a bit awkward. Also, the phrasing “title Ulysses character” is very awkward and unnatural. This is incorrect.
(B) This is a a disaster. The progressive tense “considering” is unnecessary. Having a “that” clause following this is a wordy and awkward way to convey this information. The big mistake: this version has a failure in parallelism: “that he add . . . and to later make.” Finally, just a detail, but that last infinite is a split infinitive, a gaff that would not appear on the correct answer of a GMAT SC problem. This is incorrect.
(C) This commits the famous missing verb mistake. The “although” clause should have a full subject + verb after the “when” clause, but all we get here is a participle. This is a gigantic grammatical failure. This is incorrect.
(D) Elegant and mistake free. This is promising.
(E) The phrasing “the Jewish canvasser Bloom’s story” is a little awkward, and the hypothetical phrasing in the second half changes the meaning, seeming to suggest that Bloom did not become the title character of the Ulysses. This meaning is different from that of the prompt. This is incorrect.
The only possible answer is (D).
(A) This has no major mistake but it is awkward. It is awkward that the sentence uses “that” for a non-restrictive modifier. Also, it’s not necessary to repeat the word “lightbulb,” since this is the topic of the sentence. This is incorrect.
(B) This is elegant and promising.
(C) The past perfect tense is not necessary and somewhat redundant, because time sequence is already double indicated by the “long before” phrase and the years. The hypothetical tone at the end is not appropriate. This is incorrect.
(D) Again, the past perfect is not necessary. Also, the phrasing “the 1802 prototype, the first one” is quite awkward and unclear. This is incorrect.
(E) Again, the past perfect is not necessary. Again, the hypothetical tone at the end is not appropriate. This is incorrect.
The only possible answer is (B).
(A) The “before that” and use of the past perfect could be considered redundant. Also, the pronoun “they” in the last clause is ambiguous in its referent. This is incorrect.
(B) This correctly uses the past perfect tense as the only indication of time sequence. This is elegant and mistake-free—a promising choice.
(C) This is grammatically correct but awkward. The “already” in the first clause would seem to establish a connection with other actions, but this expectation is not met. Also, the huge logical shift created by “although” makes the logical relationship of the second clause to the first clause quite unclear. This is incorrect.
(D) This choice uses the “with” + [noun] + [participle] structure, and uses it to encapsulate action by an actor other than the subject of the sentence. That’s too much action inside a prepositional phrase and Mendel did not do what he did “with Darwin.” Also, the phrase “already before this” is extremely awkward. This is incorrect.
(E) This choice commits the famous missing verb mistake in the opening subordinate clause. After the subordinate conjunction “before,” we need a full noun + verb structure, and rather than a full verb, we get only a participle. The “but” before the final clause is illogical. This is incorrect.
The only possible answer is (B).
4) (A) This first option employs the sophisticated conditional structure discussed in the section on “Conditionals” in this blog. This is grammatically and idiomatically correct, and it makes use of an elegant structure. This is a promising choice.
(B) This is awkward. First of all, the phrases “the Boustrophedon’s CEO’s quantitative skills” and “his extraordinary negotiation intuition” are both awkward insofar as they pile too many nouns together at once. Also, the word “equaled” is too strong: it suggests that two things are are entirely equivalent, such that one could substitute for the other, and this reading changes the meaning from the prompt. This is incorrect.
(C) This is grammatically correct but very long, wordy, and awkward. At every instance, this option chooses an especially wordy way to phrase something, so the whole thing is a rambling disaster. This is incorrect.
(D) The double possessive, “Boustrophedon’s CEO’s skills,” is somewhat awkward: this is a structure unlikely to appear as part of a correct answer on an official GMAT SC question. Also, the phrase “on par to” is idiomatically incorrect; the correct idiom is “on par with.” This is incorrect.
(E) The phrase “were a comparable ability for” is not idiomatically correct to convey a comparison. This phrase could be correct if the object of “for” were something other than the second term in the comparison. This is incorrect.
The only possible answer is (A).