The Grammarphobia Blog

When the past isn’t perfect

Q: I’m a little embarrassed to admit this but my guilty pleasure is watching Judge Judy on TV. I’ve noticed that many of the “litigants” on the show use the past perfect merely to explain the events that brought them to “court.” Example: “I had bought a car.” It seems to me the simple past tense would be more appropriate. I’m not losing any sleep over this, but it’s something I don’t get.

A: As you say, this isn’t something to lose sleep over, but we find that the past perfect tense is probably used too little these days, not too much.

The past perfect comes into play when people speak of two separate times, both of them in the past. For example, someone might begin by using the simple past tense to set the scene, then shift to the past perfect to refer to an even earlier time.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work. Let’s assume a well-spoken plaintiff appears before Judith Sheindlin, the outspoken ex-judge who presides over the daytime court reality show.

The plaintiff might introduce his case by saying, “Last July, the brakes on my car failed [simple past]. I had bought [past perfect] the car with the understanding that there was a warranty.”

But if the defendant’s English isn’t quite up to snuff, he might use the past perfect when there’s only one time frame: “I had sold him the car in January with a standard three-month warranty. He had refused to pay an extra $100 for a one-year warranty.” (Neither “had” is necessary.)

If this is what Judge Judy is hearing show after show, it may explain why she loses her temper so often.

Why do her litigants do it? Well, a courtroom (even one in a TV studio on Sunset Boulevard) can seem like a pretty formal place, and perhaps people overuse the past perfect tense because they think it’s more formal.

As we’ve said above, it’s been our experience that people don’t use the past perfect enough. For example, we wrote a blog entry last December on the tendency of many people to begin sentences with “If I would have known …” instead of “If I had known.”

But the past perfect isn’t always necessary when speaking of different times in the past. If the time frames are obvious, the simple past will do: “I got out of the slammer in December, a week after Judge Judy sentenced me to hard time for subject-verb disagreement.”

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