I was reading a book and stumbled upon this piece:

Not one person, dead or alive. Where was everyone? What had happened?

Can someone explain to me why this sentence is in past perfect? What is the difference between

What happened? What had happened? or What has happened?

and how to use them?

PS. English is not my native language.

  • They are just different tenses. What happened - Past Simple; What had happened - Past Perfect; What has happened - Present Perfect. Dec 15, 2016 at 9:03
  • @SovereignSun I know and I know when to use certain tense but why Past Perfect? I would have used Past Simple Dec 15, 2016 at 10:53
  • I guess your book is completely written using past tense so they only use past and past perfect tense. About when to use past perfect. Here FumbleFingers' Perfect Truism: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/5662/…
    – user178049
    Dec 15, 2016 at 11:03
  • @Mr.MagicGoat Excuse me but you asked What is the difference between the tenses and how to use them?... I told you the difference. Dec 15, 2016 at 13:55
  • I think this use of the perfect is warranted because events in books are usually told in the simple past, so if "not one person was there", something had happened before the scene being described. You might find this helpful: Canonical Post #2: What is the perfect, and how should I use it?
    – stangdon
    Dec 15, 2016 at 15:25

2 Answers 2


"Not one person, dead or alive. Where was everyone? What had happened?"

Hi, it basically reflects timing. In this example the guy propably entered a room and saw no one: "Where was everyone". What had happened reflects that something happened before he entered the room and thought "where was everyone".

If we bring forward the same to the present it would look like this: "Not one person, dead or alive. Where is everyone? What happened?"

So "what happened" points to a time in the past which is before "Where is everyone"

Hope it's clear...


"What had happened" is the past tense of "what has happened". It means something has started in the past and ended in the past.

"Has happened" means something started in the past and just ended now.

"happened" is simple past indicates a specific time or moment in the past. When you use an adverbial, such as yesterday, last month, or in 1967, you use simple past.

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