Hello Teachers

I'm now stuck by the usages of the past perfect. I think I have learned the basic grammar about the past perfect, but still I feel I didn't learn it much enough to explain about all the usage of the past perfect tense in the passges I am reading.
Let me present an example I picked up online. It is an article titled "The Last Holdup by Jesse James".

The Last Holdup by Jesse James

Jesse James's last holdup took place on Sept. 7, 1881, when Jesse, Charlie and Bob Ford, and three other men robbed the westbound Chicago and Alton train at Blue Cut, Mo. Each robber got about $140 for the night's work and participated in a bizarre auction of five watches and some jewelry in the woods after the attack.

At the time this robbery was committed, James's career was already on the wane. During his 15-year rampage, he staged at least 24 holdups and was credited with killing 10 men (although it probably was more). The holdups netted him an estimated $250,000.

Jesse Woodson James was born on Sept. 5, 1847, in Clay County, Mo. He was deceptively gentle in behavior, 5 ft. 11 in. tall, compactly built, with a dark beard and eyes that constantly blinked because he suffered from granulated eyelids. James and his hard-riding gang [1] had terrorized Missouri since the end of the Civil War. Known as "Dingus" to his friends, James liked to justify his outlawry by pretending he was keeping alive the Confederate cause. (Jesse, his brother Frank, and their sidekicks, the dreaded Younger Brothers, had all ridden with Quantrill's Raiders during the war. This bloodthirsty band of thinly disguised profiteers, which was nicknamed the Black Flag Brigade, massacred about 150 residents of Lawrence, Kans., because it was a Union supply center. Yet William Quantrill had once been a schoolteacher.) Certainly it was political tensions in the border states, the distrust of outsiders, and the power of kinship which enabled James and the others to survive for such a long time. They were his "invisible armor" against the forces of law and order.

He was without that armor on Sept. 7, 1876 (by coincidence, the exact month and day of his final holdup), in Northfield, Minn., when his gang raided the First National Bank. Virtually the whole town rode against the gang and cut off its escape. Jesse and Frank made it through the cordon but the Youngers, all badly wounded, were captured. When Cole Younger was brought back to town on a hay wagon with 11 bullets in his body, he struggled to his feet, swept off his hat, and bowed to the ladies in the street. The disaster [2] had begun when the bank cashier was shot for refusing to open the safe. The gunshots [3] had alerted the whole town. Not one of the robbers [4] had noticed that the safe was already unlocked.

As you can see, there are four uses of the past perfect tenses in this article. As for #1, I think <had terrorized> is used in order to express 'continuity' of the activity in the past. But as for #2 to #4, why did the writer use past perfect tense for them? Did he/she use it to shift the time back to the point Jesse and his gang started the raid? Or is there any other reason for the uses of the past perfect?
Hello paco, hello there.
For a starter let me put my rough idea:
In past context, if the sentence implies the meaning〖already〗or〖not yet〗(explicitly or implicitly), the use of past perfect is a 'must.'
.......or at least explainable.
Hi Paco,

I'll try.

#1 The PP sets the timeframe to before this last hold-up. It's the 'since' that expresses the continuity of the activity in that timeframe.

#2 to #4 why did the writer use past perfect tense for them? Did he/she use it to shift the time back to the point Jesse and his gang started the raid? Or is there any other reason for the uses of the past perfect?

The paragraph tells a story, so the writer uses PP to set the timeframe back to an earlier point. The need is too ensure the reader understands the time sequence. So, your opinion is right. However, I think the writer had some other possible choices, that he must have considered and then rejected. Some of these were:

A. Just use simple past for #2, 3 and 4 in the expectation that the reader would understand the timeframe had shifted from what is being said, eg the use of the word 'began' to take the story back to the beginning.

B. Do as in choice 1 above, but first start a new paragraph, to signal a shift in the narrative's focus to the reader. But perhaps the writer didn't want to make such a large and important shift at this point.

C. Just use PP for #2, to establish the shift, and then use simple past for #3 and 4.

One effect of the PP is to keep the focus on the 'current' timeframe and just jump back to an earlier timeframe 'parenthetically'. Because of that, the reader expects the narrative to come back and continue in the 'current' timeframe after these few sentences.

I'm not sure if these comments are at all helpful, or if they are going in the direction that you are interested in.

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Hello Clive

One effect of the PP is to keep the focus on the 'current' timeframe and just jump back to an earlier timeframe 'parenthetically'. Because of that, the reader expects the narrative to come back and continue in the 'current' timeframe after these few sentences.

Thanks a lot. This is the very thing I wanted to know. I myself have felt native speakers, especially writing experts, might be using the past perfect tense this way. We often come across this kind of usage of the past perfect for temporal time-back-shifting but somehow grammar books around me tell nothing about it. Anyway when we come across the past perfect tense, we have to be conscious about where/when the 'current' timeframe exists.

By the way, Clive, what do you think about [url=http://www.englishforums.com/English/PastPerfect/bwqld/Post.htm ]this question[/url] by Hereward? (For the convenience, I'll quote it here.)

Why is the past perfect used here?
'The NAZI party first met in 1921. The nightmare had begun.'

I read other people's opinions and repeatedly thought myself, but I feel we didn't still get a convincing answer. Could you help us?
Hi Paco,

It is a little thought-provoking, although it's a reasonably common construction, at least in literature. It would be uncommon to speak this way. Here's what I think.

The NAZI party first met in 1921. The nightmare had begun.

Obviously, one could just use simple past, so what does PastP add? Clearly, the idea is not that the nightmare began before 1921. Instead, the nightmare began before whatever is going to be discussed by the writer in the text that will follow. The PastP is used to set the scene, to give some background. What follows would be mainly written in simple past.

Tom met Mary in 1960. The happiest period of his life had begun (not the nightmare had begun, ha-ha!) They were married in 1961. They bought a house in 1962. etc.

To me, there's also an implication that the Nazi nightmare (as well as Tom's happiest period) is now finished.

Best wishes again, Clive
Hello Clive

Thank you a lot for the excellent answer. It is very convincing (at least to me). Now all the clouds in my mind are cleared off about the nightmare question.

Though it is off topic, I'd like to say a thing. It is that I feel it would be a tough work for you native speakers to answer questions from English learners in a place like here. The questioners often ask about grammatical validity and/or meaning of a single sentence they found, without giving any context it is used. The number of collocations in a language is tremendous but still it is much less than that of the situations people use them. So a collocation is usually used various ways depending on the context. But learners tend to believe a collocation and a situation have a one-to-one relation, and when the answer to the question from a native speaker looks ambiguous in the respect, some of them would complain about that ambiguity, despite the fact that the cause of that ambiguity exists in the way they are asking the question. This must be really unpleasant to the answerers.
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Hi again, Paco,

Thanks for the thanks, I'm happy to be of help.

Thanks also for your thoughtful comments about the native speakers who try to answer the questions. Yes, lack of context is often a problem. It;s abit like 'working in a vacuum', but I still think it serves a really useful purpose. I also think that both the native and non-native speakers can learn things here.

No, I don't find any 'unpleasantness'. On the contrary, people are almost always very grateful and polite, which is nice, and many of the questions are very interesting.

Best wishes as usual, Clive

Thank you again. I appreciate your great kindeness to us learners.

Do you know the past perfect tense nickname??
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