Past perfect tense is uncommon in literature reviews. It can be used when using a storytelling approach, however. When used in this context, it should be used to indicate that something had already been done before something else happened. In other words, it should be used when the sequence of events is important for explaining why the current situation exists.

What is Past Perfect Tense?

Using past perfect tense usually involves the word “had” in addition to the past tense version of the reporting verb. The authors may or may not be referred to directly in the sentence. In addition, temporal adjectives like “previously” and “already” often suggest past perfect tense. This is because these words imply something that had occurred before a specific point in time.

There are no instances of past perfect tense in Paragraph Version 1 or 2 at the start of this chapter. Here instead is an example of how past perfect tense might be used in the same hypothetical paper that those paragraphs could come from (bold indicates instances of past perfect tense):

 

Although Davidson (1963) had previously found that oranges have the highest vitamin C content of the commonly available citrus fruits, Young and Johnson (1972) subsequently found that kumquats contain even more vitamin C per gram. With respect to iron, it had been shown in China that apples are the best source (Yang et al. 1965) many years before Smythe et al. (1992) made their renowned discovery.

Note that in the first sentence the author is referred to directly, whereas in the second the authors are only referred to parenthetically. Notice also that in both sentences, the phrase involving past perfect tense is followed by a phrase in simple past tense. This is often the case, because past perfect tense is used to refer to something that happened before something else. The second occurrence would then be in simple past tense.

 

Past perfect tenseSimple past tense
Although Davidson (1963) had previously found that oranges have the highest vitamin C content of the commonly available citrus fruits. Explanation: Past perfect tense (“had previously found”) indicates that this finding happened before the finding in the second part of the sentence.Young and Johnson (1972) subsequently found that kumquats contain even more vitamin C per gram. Explanation: Simple past tense (“found”) indicates that this finding happened after the finding in the first part of the sentence.

What does Past Perfect Tense imply?

The implication of the first half of the sentences above is that these findings were obtained before the findings described in the second half of the sentences. In the first sentence, the author is suggesting that Young and Johnson’s study built upon but also contradicted Davidson’s study.

In the second sentence above, the author is suggesting that Smythe et al. were actually not the first people to make the discovery that apples are the best source of iron, even though they have been credited as such in the literature (or at least in the literature that is accessible to English-speaking people). In other words, the author is suggesting here that the Chinese discovery, which happened many years earlier, was ignored by or unknown to Smythe et al. and all or most of the people who read and cited their study.

What happens if I use Past Perfect Tense too much in my Introduction Section?

Too much past perfect tense in the Introduction Section would sound very unnatural and awkward. If you use past perfect tense without making it clear what happened after the thing that you refer to in past perfect tense, the text would tend not to make sense. A native speaker would soon be able to tell that the text had been written by an NNSE author who was struggling with applying appropriate tenses. The reader would lose trust in the author’s authority.

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