I drop a cushion onto what had once been a little lawn

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EStjarn

Senior Member
Spanish
Hello everyone,

This is from The Orchard on Fire (1995, p. 3) by Shena Mackay. Jaz, bringing drinks, has invited herself to her downstairs neighbor, April, the narrator, sitting out in her garden:
...The only access to this garden is through my flat and Jaz is banging on my door. 'So, you're on holiday now, you jammy so-and-so'.
...She sprawls, in shorts and vest, on the chair, sucking beer through a wedge of lemon rammed into the bottle's neck, while I drop a cushion onto what had once been a little lawn.
...'Cheers', she says, in her delusion of youth, 'I should've gone into teaching a writer doesn't have holidays.'
Do you think 'had' is a mistake here? If not, what nuance does it express?


Links: Amazon (book preview), Wikipedia (The Orchard on Fire)
 
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  • Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    Had is fine -- especially when it's bolded so we don't have to search for it :) -- and tells us that the little lawn is no longer a little lawn. My guess is that is now so nice now ... the grass has disappeared. But we don't really know.
     

    EStjarn

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Thank you, Copyright.
    Had is fine [...] and tells us that the little lawn is no longer a little lawn. My guess is that is now so nice now ... the grass has disappeared. But we don't really know.
    But couldn't that meaning just as well have been expressed with has? I realize now that that's what my question above should have asked: What nuance does had express that has could not have expressed here? I am asking because the narrator is speaking in the historical present, and introducing a verb in the past perfect (had been) interrupts her use of present tense verb forms.
     

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    You would have to use "has" which would make no sense: "... while I drop a cushion onto what has once been a little lawn." The present tense may be used for what is happening now, but the "little lawn" disappeared in the past, relative to now.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    1. I drop a cushion onto what had once been a little lawn. - the writer's choice: the best of these three options. It suggests years of encroachment by the wilderness.

    2. I drop a cushion onto what was once a little lawn. - the obvious alternative. Not bad, but lacking the nuance of evolution present in 1.

    3. I drop a cushion onto what has once been a little lawn. - EStjarn's latest suggestion. You'd need to remove the 'once'. This is to carry the historic present a step too far, though I agree that it's consistent. I couldn't write this.
     

    EStjarn

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Those are interesting points, Copyright and Thomas. I believe you have added to my understanding of the historical present. Thank you!
     

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    If you're a wordy sort of wordsmith. :D

    And "may have once been" tells us that it may have been a little lawn, we're not sure, while "had been" tells us it definitely was a little lawn.

    But your point is well taken.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    The present perfect represents a past still connected to the present time in the speaker's mind.
    The simple past represents a past one stage back from the present time.
    The past perfect represents a past one stage back from a past time.

    Thus in ordinary narrative (based on past tense), the correct version would be:
    'I dropped a cushion on to what had once been a little lawn'.
    This means that the dropping of the cushion is one stage back in the past from the time when the story is told and the time when the bare earth used to be lawn is one stage back from the dropping of the cushion.

    Putting this into the historic present, and preserving the same time gap for the lawn, the correct version would be:
    'I drop a cushion on to what was once a little lawn'.

    The author, however, has interpreted her own historic present as if it were a simple past and has therefore used the past perfect (apparently unaware of the inconsistency).
     

    EStjarn

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    The past perfect represents a past one stage back from a past time.
    I think this sums up why I felt the need to question 'had' here: there was no explicit past event to relate the past perfect to. But since the historical present is used for describing past events, the shift from it to the past perfect is, apparently, seen as acceptable.

    Thank you everyone!
     
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