has or had? Present perfect vs. past perfect

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timeA reader asks:

I read the following sentence in a newspaper, “A man was found murdered in £400,000 Victorian house which had been converted into flats following a dispute.”
Should this be “had been” or “has been?” I’ve seen both used.

The answer has to do with the type of past tense we are using. The past perfect (had been) is used for an event that was completed relative to some other event. The progressive form is used for an activity that took place over a length of time; the past perfect form is used for an event that occurred at a point in time. See English verb tenses.

  • I had been skiing before I went to dinner. (past perfect progressive)
  • They had completed their homework before I let them watch TV. (past perfect)

The present perfect verb form is used for an action that was completed at some unknown (or stated) time in the past or for an action started in the past and continued into the present.

  • I have eaten curry.
  • The dog has chased the cat.
  • I have been a student since 2015.

In the question, the main action is “found.” This action occurred after the house was converted into flats. Therefore, the best way to state it is “…was found…which had been converted…” This way we know the conversion was before the discovery of the body. If the sentence were “…was found… which has been converted” the sense would be that the conversion occurred after the discovery. For example, “The bone was dropped by a dog, which has run away.”

The other thing about this questioner’s sentence is the final phrase “following a dispute.” The positioning of this phrase at the end of the sentence seems to say that the dispute had something to do with the conversion of the mansion into flats. We call this a misplaced modifier. To fix this sentence, we need to move the modifier closer to the words it modifies.

  • The body was found, following a dispute, in a £400,000 Victorian house which had been converted into flats.

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