About a week ago I joined a question session on grammar discussing the past perfect.

I quoted Hughes and McCarthy (1998) to suggest that the usual rule about the use of the past perfect (‘that the past perfect tense is used for an event that happened in past time before another past time…’) simply doesn't work. They draw attention to the well formed sentences I spoke to Lisa Knox yesterday for the first time. I had met her 10 years ago but had not spoken to her. But they then go on to point out that this rule does not show ‘that the two sentences would be equally well formed if the second were in the past simple.’ It does not, in other words, show learners that they often have to choose between the two forms according to subtle differences in the intended meaning. I went on to give an example of a possible application of the rule to produce the sentence: I opened the door when the postman had knocked, arguing that this, though possibly grammatical is a very odd sentence indeed.

Since then I have been wondering how often the rule actually does apply. I've been interrupting my reading to look carefully at instances of the past perfect to see how often its use is mandatory. My conclusion is that usually there is a choice between past simple and past perfect. Either tense is possible. So it's not a matter of giving a rule and saying 'in these circumstances you must use the past perefct'. It's more a matter of saying In these circumstances you can choose between the past simple and the past perfect'. 

Take a look at this excerpt adapted from pages 425 and 426 of Tom Keneally's The Commonwealth of Thieves, a book about the early history ofAustralia.

One convict, who for his special gifts was allowed to stay in Sydney, was the Scots artist Thomas Watling. He was among the 400 convicts who sailed in The Pitt, but escaped in Cape Town. He was arrested by the Dutch after the Pitt's departure, put in gaol and then taken aboard Royal Admiral. Well-educated and having worked for a while in Glasgow he would become the most important artist of early New South Wales. He was banished to the settlement in the first place through the temptation posed by his talents. In Dumfries in November 1788 he was charged with making forged guinea notes on the Bank of Scotland. Rather than risk conviction, he pleaded guilt, asked to be transported and was sentenced to fourteen years.

I would argue that this paragraph is entirely acceptable grammatically. But I have doctored it by changing instances of the past perfect to make them past simple. Perhaps you'd like to try to resotre the text to its original form. I'll post the original in a couple of days.

In his comments on Teaching Articles, Peter Romain comments 'Much of our language is not enjoyable, except by those smart academics who spend years studying the minutiae of our language.' I plead guitly to being an academic fascinated with the minutiae of language. But I would argue that it's only by looking carefully at the minutiae of text that we can learn about the language. Grammar books are a useful starting point, but they are no substitute for taking a hrad look at language for yourself.


Hughes R. and McCarthy M. 1998. From Sentence to Discourse: Discourse Grammar and English Language Teaching. TESOL Quarterly 32/2.

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