Our writer’s tip for today concerns “had.” It’s inspired by a wonderful little book by Patricia T. O’Conner, called Woe is I (The title is correct, by the way), which I highly recommend.
I picked this problem because it’s a pet peeve of mine. I hear people using it improperly every day; I come across it often in student manuscripts.
It all centers around that mysterious verb form, the past participle; “had,” plus a verb: “I had walked all the way from Grant’s Pass.”
Here’s the key. Use “had” with your verb when you’re talking about two events in the past and want to show which one happened first.
“I was exhausted. I had walked all the way from Grant’s Pass.” Two past events. At some time in the past, I was exhausted, at an earlier time I made my arduous trek from Grants Pass.
Here’s where fiction writers get in trouble. Most fiction is written in past tense. “Louise Dingfobb walked into the store and grabbed a pile of raw fish off the counter.” The so-called ‘simple past’ tense is where our story takes place. It becomes our ‘now.’
We’re relating things that have already happened. Therefor, something that happened earlier in the story (like a flashback) gets “had.”
“Louise had been craving raw fish ever since Harry had stopped calling.”
Let’s say you’re talking with your literate friend (present tense). You tell her what happened today: “I had stopped to pick up a fifth of Jim Beam. I know it’s your favorite.”
An alarm will ring in your literate friend’s head. She will brand you as a goober. You’ve described only one event in the past, the booze pickup. The correct response is, “I stopped to pick up . . .” Does all this make sense? Good.
Now, go forth confident in the knowledge you will never screw up your past participle references again. Still fuzzy? Check out Patricia’s book at:


2 thoughts on “

  1. Thank you for this. as you say, most stories are written in the past tense. I’m usually pretty good with the use of had, but what I don’t understand quite well enough is when to use had, had, or even if there is ever a correct time to use it. Generally when it feels right, I write it, but I’ve yet to read a rule that tells me specifically, what the dos and don’t s are.

  2. Dear Dar,
    I suggest taking a look at Woe is I. Ms. O’Conner goes into even more detail about “had” and a lot of other thorny subjects. Good luck with your writing projects.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s