English Learner Article Problems with the Past Perfect & Past Simple: Problems with the Past Perfect & Past Simple

Summary: Notes on why native speakers do not always use the past perfect when learners have been told they must, using questions and answers from our forum.

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Problems with the use of the past perfect and the past simple.

The biggest problem for some learners seems to be the fact that native speakers do not always use the past perfect when learners have been told they must. Even teachers who are native speakers do not always agree on whether the past perfect is more appropriate than the past simple in some sentences. Here are some questions and answers from past UE thread to illustrate this.

a. joeoct: He made a bad decision because he didn't think it through. What about this one?:

He made a bad decision because he hadn't thought it through.

konungursvia: Both are common, the second is better if you are particular about being clear and logical.

b. kwfine: I am writing a diary, but I am not sure whether I should use past perfect tense or not in the following sentence:

I went to visit Japan after I watched a tour program on TV.

Or should I write this instead: I went to visit Japan after I had watched a tour program on TV.

bhaisahab: Both are OK. "after watching" is also correct.

c. Verona_82: I'm wondering if there is a strong need to use the past perfect simple in the sentences below. They seem to look perfectly correct from the grammatical point of view, but how many speakers would ever use the perfect forms in conversation?

1. He took the job that had been given up by a few people during the last year.

2. The boy said he would show me the bicycle he had been given as a present.

Tdol: I would use the active in the first, but keep the past perfect, though the past could be used.

The second sounds fine to me as it stands, but you'd hear was given used by some speakers too IMO.

d. Tan Elaine: Before the ambulance arrived, the injured man died/had died. I think both verbs can be used. Am I correct?

Barb_D: They can, but I vote for simple past. With the use of "before" there is no doubt what happened in what order.

Raymott: "Had died" is possible if the context calls for it. There's nothing in this sentence that suggests a need for it.

However: As the ambulance approached the scene, the driver noticed that no one at all was attending to the injured man. This was because, before the ambulance arrived, the injured man had died. No one was looking after the injured man, because he had died.

Fishman: I vote for "had died", because in Hong Kong if you use just "died" and you say you're really good at American English, the teacher will just put in "had" before died anyway.

Tan Elaine: I believe many non-native English teachers will put in 'had' before 'died', but I don't know the reason for that.

Barb_D:Because the sequence is clear without it.

Raymott: The reason is that many non-native teachers are taught, and teach, that two events happening at different times in the past require the earlier event to be phrased in the past perfect. It may even be normal in Hong Kong English. But it's not a rule for English elsewhere.
Examples like this are always going to occur where teachers who don't know the language teach the language - and there's no easy solution to that. No doubt, that's part of the reason for regional variation.

e. AlexAD: I have got a excerpt from a story, 'Standing at the opposite end of the bridge was a giant of a man. He had started to cross at the same time as the outlaw'.

Would that have the same meaning to you if I, say, replaced the past perfect with the past simple?

fivejedjon: If he was at the opposite end of the bridge, then he had not started to cross. Only the past simple is correct. The crossing started after the standing

If had left the far end of the bridge on his way towards the middle, only the past perfect is appropriate, as in:

Standing some way across the bridge was a giant of a man. He had started to cross at the same time as the outlaw.

billmcd: It depends. Use of the past perfect, as in your example, the reader/listener would expect another past action that should be expressed in the simple past tense, e.g. "He had started to cross the bridge.......when he noticed a gun in the outlaw's belt". But either past perfect or simple past would work in your example.

BobK: Little John started to cross the bridge at the same time as Robin Hood. This preceded the standing. The order of actions is important to underline Little John's deliberateness. He had stepped onto the bridge intentionally, confrontationally; I bet he'd crossed his arms!

If you used the simple past, people would probably get the gist, and work out the sequence of events for themselves. It'd be kinder and clearer if you saved them the trouble.

f. vectra: Here is the text:

"How do you like your course, Sarah?" Jane asked.
"I didn't like it at first," Sarah replied. "I'm really enjoying it now."

If we change it into Reported speech: Jane asked Sarah if she liked her/the course. Sarah replied that she had not liked it at first/did not like it at first. But she was/is really enjoying it now/these days.

I do know the rules of tense backshifting in Indirect/Reported speech, but I think I could use "she did not like it at first" without complicating the sentence with Past Perfect. As for the second sentence, I am not so sure. "She was really enjoying it now" seems OK.

fivejedjon:"How do you like your course, Sarah?" Jane asked.
"I didn't like it at first," Sarah replied. "I'm really enjoying it now."

If we change it into Reported speech:

Jane asked Sarah if she liked her/the course
.
Sarah replied that she had not liked it at first/did not like it at first.
But she was/is? really enjoying it now/these days
.

'Was' is more likely, because you started with a backshifted tense in the first reported question.

I do know the rules of tense backshifting in Indirect/Reported speech, but I think I could use "she did not like it at first" without complicating the sentence with Past Perfect.

I agree
As for the second sentence, I am not so sure. "She was really enjoying it now" seems OK
. “

See my comment, above.

f. rainous: Which one of the two is correct?

I realized I had forgotten…..or…..I realized I have forgotten

or are they both correct depending on the context?

albertino: I realized I had forgotten. (The main verb is 'realized', a past action, so 'I had forgotten' should be in the past as well.)

SirGod: Definitely the first one. And I have two arguments for that:

1) You had forgotten something before you realised it. (you use past perfect when an event happened before a past event)
2) You must use past tense in the subordinate clause if there is past tense in the main clause. (except the case when there is a general truth in the subordinate clause, which is not the case here)

 g. Waawe: I suppose I understand using past perfect tenses quite well, yet sometimes, I tend to overuse them to be sure I am not making any mistake. In texts I have seen I noticed past perfect tenses are not always obligatory and we can easily use their past counterparts.

My question is: In what types of subordinate clauses can we omit past perfect tenses using past tenses instead? Do we have to use past perfect tenses in the following examples:

I read the newspaper that I bought in the newsagent's...or…My dad was furious because I scratched his car….or
He explained to me why he came.

Personally, I would always use the past perfect to avoid making any mistake.
Can I easily use past tenses in the sentences?
What are the cases when we do not have to use past perfect forms?

Raymott:”I suppose I understand using past perfect tenses quite well, yet sometimes, I tend to overuse them to be sure I am not making any mistake. In texts I have seen I noticed past perfect tenses are not always obligatory and we can easily use their past counterparts.”
The past perfect tense is rarely obligatory.

“My question is: In what types of subordinate clauses can we omit past perfect tenses using past tenses instead? Do we have to use past perfect tenses in the following examples:

I read the newspaper that I bought in the newsagent's."

No. You obviously bought the newspaper before you read it, so you don't have to signal the sequence of actions. If you want to stress something abnormal, you could use the past perfect. "I had already read the newspaper before I bought it", but even then it's not necessary if the context makes clear how this happened.

“or: My dad was furious because I scratched his car."

No. Same reason. If A happened because of B, then B happened before A.

“or: He explained to me why he came."

You could use it here, depending on the context.

“Personally, I would always use the past perfect to avoid making any mistake.”
How would this help you avoid the mistake of using the past perfect when it wasn't called for?

You only need to use the past perfect when the sequence of events is not clear without it, or when you want to stress that sequence for some reason. You do not have to use the past perfect tense every time you mention two things that happened in the past.
Instead of giving all the rules again, it might be best if you searched this site for "past perfect". This question comes up about fifty-seven* times a month.

*estimated.

fivejedjon: I agree with what Raymott wrote, above. This is just a reminder that the past perfect is necessary when we are talking about past counterfactual situations:

I wish I hadn't taken that job.
If Peter had know that about Jane, he would never have married her.

See also: The Past Perfect

Copyright © 2011

Written by JE Webb for UsingEnglish.com © 2011

About the author:

I began teaching in 1967, and, apart from post-grad studies, have been teaching and writing ever since. I've taught French and Herman in British secondary schools and FE Colleges, and EFL at schools and universities in China, the Czech Republic, Estonia.,
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