root: م-ض-ي / noun / definition: the past, past tense
Ever heard of the term “pluperfect”? (Yes? No? Possibly…?) Well, seeing as the Hans Wehr dictionary uses this word (on page 993, to be specific), we’ll have to find out what it means and how it works.
First things first, let’s understand the meaning of “pluperfect”:
the basic past tense verb we encounter most of the time is called the simple perfect tense—examples include words like “travelled” and “wrote”
the pluperfect refers to past tense constructions such as “had travelled” and “had written“—essentially, when you refer to something that happened before the point in time you were already talking about
in Arabic: the verb كان + a past tense verb = the pluperfect
We actually dealt with an example of the pluperfect construction in the first Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation, where we encountered the following:
كان ذهني قد صفا حينئذ
my mind had become clear at that time
Above, we have كان followed by the past tense verb صَفا (which means “to become clear”).
If the word كان was omitted from that clause, we would have translated it as “my mind became clear at that time” instead of “had become“.
(So, if the word “pluperfect” is making things seem more complicated, just remember that كان + past tense is usually translated using the word “had”.)
In the example above, you may have noticed that كان and the subsequent verb are not immediately next to each other. This brings us to two important points we should keep in mind when using this type of construction:
- the particle “قَدْ” is very often (but not always!) used immediately before the second verb
- as you may already know, the word قد is rarely translated and it simply acts as an emphasis for the past tense or is included for stylistic reasons
- in some cases, it may be translated as “already”—similar to how we might say in English “I had already eaten”
- the subject of clause is sandwiched between كان and the second verb
- we know that, in Arabic, the subject of a sentence is not always explicitly mentioned—for example, “أَكَلوا” = “they ate”
- but when the subject of a pluperfect construction is explicitly mentioned, it is placed after the كان and before the other verb (including the particle قد, if it is present)
Note: it’s important to remember that كان is also a verb and, therefore, it conjugates according to the subject.
Here are some examples of the pluperfect construction:
كانوا قَد زاروا آسِيا
they had visited Asia
كانَ الشَّبابُ قَد زاروا آسِيا
the young men had visited Asia
(remember that when the verb comes before its subject, it remains singular and only agrees with the subject in gender—hence, we see “كان” at the start here rather than “كانوا”; however, as the second verb comes after the subject, it agrees in both gender and number, “زاروا”)
كانَت لَيْلى رَكَّزَت طُولَ المُحاضَرة
Layla had concentrated throughout the lecture
لَم أَعْرِف ما إذا كانَ قَد نَجا
I didn’t know whether he had survived
يُمْكِنُ أَنْ يَكونَ قَد ذَهَبَ إلى الدُكّان
he might have gone to the shop
(in this last example, the present tense form of كان is used (يكون) because the particle “أن” must be followed by a present tense verb; moreover, due to the modal verb “might”, even the English translation uses the present tense for the first part of the pluperfect construction in this context—i.e. “have gone” instead of “had gone”)
One last note: the pluperfect construction only works if the verb after كان is in past tense. If the second verb was in present tense for example, it would form the past progressive construction instead—e.g. كانَ يَكْتُبُ = “he was writing”.
I hope you now understand the pluperfect tense and how the grammatical construction works in Arabic. Don’t hesitate to leave any questions below if you have any!
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7 thoughts on “كان Plus a Past Tense Verb”
Hi in لم أعرف ما إذا كان قد نجا what type of ma is that?
Here, ما and إذا form a phrase (followed by the past tense) meaning “if” or “whether”. If you take a look at definition 8 under ما in the Hans Wehr dictionary, you’ll see some more examples! Hope that helps.