The Grammarphobia Blog

When the simple past is perfect

Q: I don’t see why the past perfect, not the present perfect, is used in the following sentence: “The Putinversteher, who until recently had dominated the German media and are still heavily present in the German-language book market, have contributed to this development.”

A: We wouldn’t use either the present perfect (“have dominated”) or the past perfect (“had dominated”). We’d use the simple past tense (“dominated”):

“The Putinversteher, who until recently dominated the German media and are still heavily present in the German-language book market, have contributed to this development.”

The present perfect (e.g., “have dominated”) generally refers to an action that began in the past and continues into the present, or to one that occurred at some indefinite time in the past. The past perfect (“had dominated”) is used to differentiate a past action from one that happened at a more recent time in the past.

Neither perfect tense applies in this case.

The key passage here refers to one specific past action, which the author describes as the recent domination of the German media by the Putinversteher (German for “those who understand Putin”). The use of “until recently” shows that the action ended before the current time, so the simple past tense is appropriate.

The passage, as you undoubtedly know, is from a Jan. 21, 2016, article in the Harvard International Review by the German political scientist Andreas Umland. The article, translated from German, criticizes the German defenders of the Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The article could have used the present perfect if the domination continued into the present (“… who have dominated the German media and are heavily present in the German-language book market …”) or if the domination was for an indefinite time in the past (“… who have sometimes dominated the German media and are heavily present in the German-language book market …”).

The past perfect could have been used if one past action preceded another (“… who had dominated the German media and were still heavily present in the German-language book market …”).

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