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 Johnstarted 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