The Confusion of Had

I learned a lot about proper writing (punctuation, spelling, grammar) in school back when the education system thought it was more important to be able to write well than to dissect a literary story.

Over the past sixteen years, I’ve relearned a lot of these rules and honed my skills with the written word, so I could write well, be understood by readers with various education levels and tell a good story.

Still, writing is a big ‘process’. It’s full of intricate details we need a life time to explore. Sometimes I think it’s impossible to know it all. Each aspect of it must be scrutinised individually to decipher how it works.

One of those instances for me is the proper use of ‘had’. I know the basics, how it might be used and how a sentence sounds better when it is included. But I admit, it’s a challenge when the nit-picking begins.

I was faced with this today when I once again, faced with the dilemma of using ‘had’ or leaving it out. Here’s the paragraph in question (Scattered Stones; Book 2 of The Castle Keepers):

Getting caught was the last thing Bronwyn wanted. The women who ruled the castle gave no mercy to men who crossed their lines. Four decades beforehand, the army of human females had forcibly taken the ancient Tigh Na Mare Castle overlooking Ellswire Harbour. Their ruler, Lord Orenda Nassen, was a brute who had ignored Bronwyn’s requests for assistance in finding Isla. To add insult to his rejection, she forced him to strip to his shorts and carry his possessions while he walked through the castle and the small settlement to the village gates. Along the way, the female inhabitants taunted him with words and sticks. It took all his will to remain calm.

The question is, should this sentence contain ‘had’ or not?

To add insult to his rejection, she forced him to strip to his shorts and carry his possessions while he walked through the castle and the small settlement to the village gates.

To add insult to his rejection, she had forced him to strip to his shorts and carry his possessions while he walked through the castle and the small settlement to the village gates.

According to Everything Language and Grammar, ‘had’ goes only with the event that happened first. They have an excellent example on their site.

Here are a few I’ve written with their format in mind:

  1. Bronwyn had broken into the castle before the sun set.

[Bronwyn broke into the caste first; then the sun set]

  1. Bronwyn broke into the castle after the sun had set.

[Here, the sun set first, so it gets the ‘had’ and not Bronwyn’s actions.]

*The past perfect tense is the use of ‘had’ (‘had broken’ and ‘had set’), whereas the regular past tense was without ‘had’ (‘set’ and ‘broke’).

Now, this works in one sentence, but I am left wondering about the use of ‘had’ in a group of sentences talking about a past event, such as the one in the paragraph above. My gut feeling says the same logic should apply. In other words, ‘had’ goes with the event that happened first, and the other sentences are void of ‘had’.

For example:

  1. When Jimmy sat down, I told him that three days ago the brakes had failed on the truck. It resulted in an accident that took out a street sign but did little damage to the vehicle.

Although some might write those two sentences like this: When Jimmy sat down, I told him that three days ago the brakes had failed on the truck. It resulted in an accident that had taken out a street sign but did little damage to the vehicle.

But is using both ‘hads’ too much? Oh, the dilemma.

The English Page also offers advice, but it is not as simple as Everything Language and Grammar. It gives more examples and possibilities for ‘had’, ‘have’ and ‘had had’.

At the bottom of the English Page, are links to exercises and related topics. I got an 89% on the first one: Verb Tense Exercise 11 Simple Past and Past Perfect.

From this exercise, it appears that two sentences could each contain ‘had’ when talking about a past event in a past tense story. In other words, this appears to be the correct format:

When Jimmy sat down, I told him that three days ago the brakes had failed on the truck. It resulted in an accident that had taken out a street sign but did little damage to the vehicle.

This also means my paragraph should have two ‘hads’ not one:

Their ruler, Lord Orenda Nassen, was a brute who had ignored Bronwyn’s requests for assistance in finding Isla. To add insult to his rejection, she had forced him to strip to his shorts and carry his possessions while he walked through the castle and the small settlement to the village gates.

Perhaps more research is required.

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5 thoughts on “The Confusion of Had

  1. Interesting post Diane. In some respects the ‘had’ seems appropriate in both places, but I feel the flow is better with only the 1st ‘had’ event. I also can’t wait to tackle my newest book by Steve Pinker, Sense of Style, which one of your readers had mentioned. 🙂

  2. Actually Diane, they both sound well as far as “flow”. However I like the example with “…had ignored…” and leave out the second one. Phew…all this grammar talk is giving me a splitting “had-ache”. 🙂

  3. Had you included the second ‘had’ in your first paragraph, it would have felt wrong. You had me with the first ‘had.’

    I am enjoying a new book called “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century” by Steven Pinker. Ask for it for Xmas. He addresses many of these kinds of issues. Had I been aware of your angst earlier, I’d have chimed up,
    Had enough?

    • I may have had enough. Or perhaps I have not. Thank you, Brian, for the smile and the advice. I checked out the book at Chapters. The price is fair, and I have an unused gift card I’ve been eager to use.

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