Nativity scene

Behold the power of the verb: a true Christmas story

I love reading human interest stories this time of year – you know, stories that really aren’t news but they make you feel good.  I was reading just such a story in The Guardian this week when I came across this sentence:

A camel, cow and donkey that were found roaming together along a Kansas road have been booked to appear in a Christmas Nativity scene.

I was a bit confused.  I hadn’t finished my first up of coffee yet and was making assumptions.  Were the animals booked to do the nativity scene first, then got away?  Or had they escaped then were booked to do the nativity scene?

It turns out that in November, the trio, who belonged to an employee at a local wildlife park, got out of their enclosure.  The local sheriff asked for help on Facebook, joking that the three friends were travelling together towards a Northern star.  I’m happy to report that their owner was found.  That’s when the wildlife park decided to put on a live Nativity scene starring Sully the camel, Gus the donkey, and Rufus the cow.

Of course.  The animals escaped then were booked to do the nativity scene.  I could see that just by looking at the original sentence.

Why?

Because they used the present perfect, not the past perfect. Let’s look at the two sentences below and explore the difference between these two tenses.

A camel, a cow, and a donkey that were found roaming together along a Kansas road have been booked to appear in a Christmas nativity scene.
[present perfect passive]

 A camel, a cow, and a donkey that were found roaming together along a Kansas road had been booked to appear in a Christmas nativity scene.
[past perfect passive]

In the first sentence, the animals have been booked.  Because the writer used the present perfect, we know the booking happened in the past, it is finished, but we don’t know when the action occurred.

present perfect = have + past participle

The chronology (the order that the actions happened) is just as it happened in the sentence:

  1. The three were found roaming together.
  2. They were then booked for the nativity scene.

The sentence is also in the passive voice.  Although the camel, cow, and donkey are in the subject of the sentence, they are not performing the action.  Someone else booked them for the Christmas nativity, but we don’t know who.  And really, that person isn’t important.  That’s why we use the passive.

present perfect passive = have + been + past participle

The second sentence also uses the passive, but this time it’s in the past perfect.  The past perfect is used when we want to show that two things happened in the past, but one thing happened before the other.

past perfect = had + past participle

So, in the sentence:

A camel, a cow, and a donkey that were found roaming together along a Kansas road had been booked to appear in a Christmas nativity scene.

 The chronology is:

  1. The trio was booked for the nativity scene.
  2. They then escaped and were found roaming on a Kansas road.

past perfect passive = had + been + past participle

I hope this article helped you understand the difference between the two tenses.  If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below.  Otherwise, I would like to wish everyone Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a very happy 2020!


Laura Marshallsay - Owner, Marshallsay EnglishMy name is Laura Marshallsay, and I help professionals just like you improve their English so they can present themselves to the world with confidence.  Check out my website, www.marshallsayenglish.com, and download my free guide “Top Tips for Conference Calls.”