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During studies I recently stumbled over this sentence:

大きな犬がこっちに走ってきたので、びっくりした。

My question is why きた is used in 走ってきた. I would have guessed it should be a きていた, as びっくりした is past tense and 走って happens before that.

It was explained to me that, that to きていた is used to form the past perfect tense, while きた would form the present perfect. Thus I am confused.

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    Sounds like your teacher and/or reference materials were confused / confusing. ~た in general marks completed aspect (the action is complete within the context of the utterance), not necessarily past tense (the action happened before the "now" of the temporal context of the utterance). So you can say things like 明日【あした】、向こうに到着【とうちゃく】したところ (literally, "tomorrow, when I arrived over there..."), and it is not past tense, as we are talking about "tomorrow". Nov 10, 2021 at 19:16
  • Would you use the past perfect tense when you translate that sentence into English?
    – aguijonazo
    Nov 10, 2021 at 19:56
  • @aguijonazo I think using plain past should be fine: "Because a large dog ran up toward me, I was startled."
    – A.Ellett
    Nov 10, 2021 at 23:11
  • @A.Ellett - That’s what I thought and I was wondering why the OP expected to see in the Japanese sentence what they (mistakenly) thought corresponded to the past perfect tense in English.
    – aguijonazo
    Nov 11, 2021 at 0:51

1 Answer 1

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First of all, verbs in Japanese have only two tenses, past and non-past. The latter is also known as the “present” tense, although it is also used to describe a future event.

Secondly, as you may have already learned, [V て-form]-いる can mean many different things depending on the verb and/or the context. [V て-form]-いた is simply its past version and it also can mean many different things.

Replacing きた with きていた makes a grammatical sentence.

大きな犬がこっちに走ってきていたので、びっくりした。

However, it probably won’t be understood the way you want it to be. Because of the verb 走る, which describes a visible action, 走ってきていた will more likely be understood as describing a progressive action in the past.

I was startled because a large dog was running up toward me.

きていた without 走る can be understood as referring to a past state that resulted from an earlier action, in this case that of 来る, and this might be translated using the past perfect tense in English.

大きな犬がこっちにきていたので、びっくりした。
I was startled because a large dog had come where I was.

The simple past tense is fine in the original sentence (and in its English translation) because it is meant to describe an action that happened at one point of time in the past.

大きな犬がこっちに走ってきたので、びっくりした。
I was startled because a large dog ran up toward me.

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  • Very informative. I didn't know how to address the ってきていた portion. I wasn't even sure how it might be understood.
    – A.Ellett
    Nov 11, 2021 at 1:43
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. Nov 11, 2021 at 18:56
  • For clarification, I'm aware that it is discussable, whether calling these constructions present/past perfect. I was refering to this: wasabi-jpn.com/japanese-grammar/helping-verbs when saying that. I assumed it is the last case described under 'Time Flows' there, as びっくりした is past tense.
    – omgold
    Nov 12, 2021 at 7:08

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