Concise and Precise

Clear and concise. Simple and direct. These are qualities of good writing, certainly, but when we are revising our sentences, where is the line between concision and imprecision? Take, for example, this sentence: By the time they arrived, I had already had breakfast. A quick look might suggest to us that there’s no need to write the verb had twice in the second clause. Judging that redundant, we might think that I already had breakfast would express the same idea with fewer words. But is that correct?

Let’s begin by seeing the contours of the sentence: two clauses separated by a comma, the first clause being subordinate because the phrase by the time means when and when is a subordinating conjunction. The second clause must then be the main clause: the subject is I and the verb is had had, with the adverb already rightly taking up position between the two verbs. We have, then, a complex sentence, and its complex form can be a clue to the riddle we are trying to solve.

If we concentrate on the verb phrase of the main clause, removing the adverb already for purposes of analysis, we have to try to account for the odd double occurrence of the verb had. A verb phrase, we remember, is a group of verbs (not one verb alone), all of which are needed to construct the tense of a verb. English verbs have six tenses, three of which are labeled perfect (meaning completed), and a perfect tense always includes some form of the verb have as an auxiliary verb in the verb phrase. An auxiliary verb works together with the principal verb of the phrase to build out a tense. So in the verb phrase of the main clause we are analyzing, I had had, the first had is the auxiliary verb and the second had is the principal verb. Together they form the past perfect tense. Odd, but true.

So if in our zeal to be concise we decide that one had is quite enough, we end up changing the tense of the main verb: using the verb had only once makes it the principal verb of the clause, which means we would be writing the simple past tense, I had breakfast, as opposed to the past perfect I had had breakfast. But would that be correct? The simple past tense is used when other past events are not closely connected logically. I can say, for example, that I got up early and ate breakfast before daybreak, and the verbs got up and ate are both appropriately in the simple past tense because the two events are not seen to be logically dependent on each other. But when two events in the past are closely connected, then the past perfect must be used for the event that occurred earlier in time relative to the other past event. Thus, because in our example my eating breakfast happened before their arriving, we must retain the past perfect tense had had in the main clause. To delete one instance of had would be to change the tense, and changing the tense would break the logical sequence of the two past events.

The lesson, then, is that the goal of concision cannot be had at the price of precision. The past perfect tense is sometimes called a literary tense, meaning that we find ourselves conforming to the logically precise organization of past events more often in writing than in speech. That will produce oddities of form from time to time, but a little analysis can help us determine whether we’ve lapsed in concision or persisted in precision.


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