I am studying sequence of tenses but there is something that confuses me.

When the main clause is past simple, the book says you must use past perfect when you talk about previous actions.

Example :

I knew I had made wrong decision.

However, I see some sentence not obeying to this rule :

I knew she was ill previous night.

Could you please explain me this situation ?

  • 1
    It's called backshift, and it's often optional.
    – deadrat
    Nov 30, 2016 at 8:10
  • deadrat thank you for answer. As I understand ,you mean that I can use both ?
    – d.alex
    Nov 30, 2016 at 8:15
  • In your second example, you might say that the perfect would be redundant because the past/anterior meaning is conveyed by "previous night". Use it by all means if you wish, but it's not obligatory.
    – BillJ
    Nov 30, 2016 at 13:27

1 Answer 1


The rule you are relying is not accurate!

Past perfect is not needed if the sequence is clear or the time of the action is specific

In your first example,

I knew I had made wrong decision.

Past perfect is required to show that the action of making wrong decision had happened earlier before you realized it.

In your second example,

I knew she was ill previous night.

The adverbial phrase(previous night) explicitly tell when she was ill. So past perfect is not neccessary. However, using past perfect is not wrong.

  • Thank you for answer , if there werent 'previous night' ? should I always use past perfect if something happened before another thing ?
    – d.alex
    Nov 30, 2016 at 17:10
  • 1
    @b.east Yes, unless it's general phenomenon when the listener can inferred which action starts first and which action takes place. You may read this ell.stackexchange.com/questions/6372/… Nov 30, 2016 at 21:32

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