Groundviews

A-Z of Sri Lankan English: H is for had

I recently listened to someone telling a story in the course of an informal conversation. The speaker was a Sri Lankan whose first language is English, and the story involved a group of people raising funds to build a Buddha statue. Halfway through I realised that he was relating the story entirely in the past perfect tense (they had gone to the temple they had asked the monks …), and as I continued listening, I realised that he consistently used this tense throughout the story. There was no reason according to standard English grammar for using the past perfect instead of the simple past (they went to the temple they asked the monks …). The reason he chose the past perfect tense was because he was relating a story which he had heard from someone else. In other words, he was subconsciously signalling a certain distance from the facts of the story, allowing for the possibility that his information might not be totally reliable. If he had been relating an incident from his own experience, he would certainly have used the simple past (we went to the temple we asked the monks …).

The past perfect tense (had gone) has three main uses in standard English:

  1. When describing two events in the past, to show that one event had happened before the other (When we arrived, they had already left).
  2. In reported speech, to express a statement which was originally spoken in the past tense (She told me she had arrived at 3) – which is a logical extension of no. 1.
  3. To desribe a hypothetical event in the past (something which never actually happened), for example in conditionals: If you had told me … (but you didn’t), or to express regrets: I wish I hadn’t said that (… but I did).

In Sri Lankan usage, the simple past tense often replaces the past perfect in no. 2 (She told me she arrived at 3) and no. 3 (If you told me …; I wish I didn’t say that) – especially in informal spoken contexts. But there are other situations where the past perfect tense tends to be used in SLE where the simple past would be the standard form in British or American English.

For example, as in the story of the monks and the Buddha statue, the past perfect tense is used to report something which the speaker did not experience firsthand, and which is therefore not being reported as absolute fact. This is common in newspaper reports where the writer is relating an incident that he/she has heard second-hand, e.g.: The robbers had escaped in a white van. This seems to me to be perfectly logical, as it is like saying The police said that the robbers had escaped in a white van or It was reported that the robbers had escaped in a white van. In other words, it is a form of reported speech (no. 2 above), but without the introductory clause The police said that or It was reported that…, which becomes superfluous when you understand the function of the past perfect verb had escaped. But you won’t find this usage in any standard grammar book.

One reason why this use of the past perfect tense stands out in spoken contexts, is that the auxiliary verb had tends to be pronounced in full in Sri Lankan usage (they had gone, they had asked), and not contracted (they’d gone, they’d asked) as it would normally be in standard British or American pronunciation.

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A-Z of Sri Lankan English is“an all-new, occasional alphabetical dip“into the variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka, published exclusively on“Groundviews. The original A-Z of Sri Lankan English was published in the travelsrilanka magazine, and can be found here.