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Grammar Check: “Had” is not Bad

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We all know the obvious “bad words,” of course. We often refer to them by letter: the F word, the S word, etc. But when it comes to writing, some surprising terms get lumped into the “bad” category. Two of the biggest offenders? “Was” and “had.”

I’m not going to defend “was,” (what a boring verb!), but I’d like to stand up for the poor, much-maligned “had.”

“Had” is, of course the past tense of “have.” But it’s also part of what’s known as the Past Perfect tense, which I’ll get to in a minute. The reason it gets a bad reputation is that it immediately pulls you out of the action and into the past. And when writing (particularly fiction), it’s important to keep the reader involved in what’s going on in the here-and-now.

But so many writers have been told over and over again that “had” is a bad word, they’ve stopped using it, even when they should.

So when should you use “had”? When you need the Past Perfect tense.

The Past Perfect tense has two parts: 1. The past tense of the verb “to have” (had) and 2. The past participle of the main verb. For instance: “had” + “thrown” or “had” + “forgotten”

So why not just write “threw” or “forgot,” which are the regular past tense of those verbs? It all depends on when you did the throwing or forgetting. If throwing the ball or forgetting the lyrics is the only thing you just did, you can use past tense. (“I threw the ball to the dog.” “I forgot the words to Love is a Battlefield.”)

But if you threw the ball and then did something else, or if you forgot quite a while ago and have since moved on to another action, you need the Past Perfect. You need “had.”

For example: “I had thrown the ball so many times that morning that my arm hurt.” What’s happened already? Throwing the ball, yes, but also my arm hurting. Both of those happened in the past. (Sure, your arm may still hurt, but it isn’t written in present tense. That would be: “my arm hurts.”)

In other words, the past perfect refers to a time earlier than before now. Use it to show which of the two events happened first. (I threw the ball, and then, after that, my arm hurt.)

Now, sometimes the order of events will be perfectly obvious (In the case of my example, the throwing had to have occurred before the arm hurting since it’s cause and effect.), but you still need the “had” to be grammatically correct!

EXAMPLE: “She was still annoyed that he rebuffed her offer for help last night.”

Two verbs in the past tense: “was” and “rebuffed.” This one is also cause and effect: the rebuffing caused the state of being (annoyed). Since the offer happened further in the past, you need a “had” before the verb “rebuffed.”

“She was still annoyed that he had rebuffed her offer for help last night.”

EXAMPLE:  “The camera held practically every picture she ever took.”

Two verbs in the past tense: “held” and “took.” Which one happened further in the past? “Took.” (She had to take the pictures for them to be held on the camera.) So we add the “had” for clarity. And in this case, if we add in the “had” to “took,” we need to change the verb form to “taken,” since it’s an irregular verb.

“The camera held practically every picture she had ever taken.”

So when you are referencing something that took place in the past, and you need to show that it happened before something else, don’t be afraid to use “had”! (Whether you’re pulling your reader out of the action is a topic for a different columnist! :) )

Rachel is a full-on, hardcore grammar freak. Her favorite punctuation marks are parentheses, em dashes and ellipses. She still loves adverbs, but is trying to wean herself off of them. And she truly believes that it’s okay to split an infinitive. In addition to her grammar obsession, Rachel writes light contemporary romance – occasionally with a paranormal twist – and is published in short fiction.
  1. I’ve always struggled with the right way to use “had,” so thanks for clarifying a muddy topic for me, Rachel. I’ll print this out and use it for reference when I proofread.

    Related to this topic, I’ve read comments by other experts that if one is writing a scene with a memory or flashback, one needs to use “had” once or twice to establish the time reference as being in the past, then it’s okay to leave it out for the rest of the scene. Care to comment on that idea?

  2. Hi Chris!
    In terms of a memory/flashback, I think you can handle it in a couple of ways. The easiest is to set off the text with extra space and/or italicize it, so there’s a big visual cue for the reader. In that case, you probably wouldn’t need to use “had” at all. If you don’t want to go that route, you’d definitely need to use “had,” at least at the beginning to ease you in. Whether you keep using it throughout is a personal choice, IMO. I’d just read through the section to see if it’s clear enough as-is and then decide.

  3. Nicole Dimond says:

    My husband had been getting after me all week about using the past perfect tense in my work and now here’s this blog post. He’s laughing pretty hard right now. Good info. Thanks Rachael!

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