Some grammar books say 'The past perfect can be used to express hope, wish, etc.which was not realized'


  1. I HAD hoped we would leave tomorrow, but it won't be possible.
  2. I HAD meant to call on you, but was prevented from doing so.

My question is,

If I use past simple instead of past perfect in above examples, will it express the same meaning? (or is it possible to use past simple in this case?)

  • The preterite "had" indicates modal remoteness (counterfactuality), but because the preterite is marking modal remoteness, it can't also be used to indicate past time, so the perfect has to be used for this purpose.
    – BillJ
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 20:37
  • @BillJ Eh? I don't think there's a remote anywhere in either sentence; hope is certainly an assertion of fact, and even the would takes the preterit form through backshift. Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 22:44

2 Answers 2


No the simple past tense is for the simple past, although it is a distinction which may be becoming blurred. Consider your first example, with just its first clause.

I had hoped we would leave tomorrow.

It is something you don't hope any more, though, for whatever reason. Or possibly you may have hoped it, then you were told it couldn't happen, and finally you were told that the situation had changed again. Now you can. The point is that at some point in time between then and now you had lost hope. The past predicate would still be applicable if you regained it.

I hoped we would leave tomorrow.

And you may well still hope that. Just because I was happy yesterday does not mean I am not happy today. It does not mean I am happy, either. The simple past expresses nothing concerning my current state. (Well, some things are permanently permanent -- my focus is on things that can change, like emotions.)

Now simple past with both clauses:

I hoped we would leave tomorrow, but it won't be possible.

Technically this is grammatically awkward, but it may not be wrong. You are not predicating your first clause with the meaning inherent in the second. As stated up top, this form is becoming more common as our speech becomes more, um, lazy.

  • 1
    If I use past simple tense and perfect infinitive in my second example, like 'I meant to have called on you, but was...', Will it mean the same as 'I had meant to call on you, but was...'?
    – Dinusha
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 19:53
  • 1
    I think it goes too far to say that you can't use the simple past to say this, since that kind of use is pretty common. As you say, it may be lazy but it is perfectly natural.
    – Andrew
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 20:05
  • @Dinusha Ouch! 😱 That hurts my head. I think yes they mean the same, but I am not sure. I cannot think of a context where one clause would mean anything different from the other.
    – RichF
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 20:14
  • @Andrew I agree. That's why the persnickety old guy in me began with No but the realist continued the softening clause. I sense you are further along the acceptance phase than I. Dinusha seems to be a word nerd (like me) and wishes to know both what is "right" and what is "common".
    – RichF
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 20:22
  • I meant to have called = At a point in the past, I was looking ahead to what was then the future, with the expectation that I would have called upon you by that time. :) Spare yourself, and make the visit, so you don't have to say this.
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 20:27

Your instinct is correct; in the most formal diction a simple past of hope is called for here because it represents a state that is now over and done with".

Ordinarily a past perfect must be 'anchored' on a past Reference Time which is the current topic and to which the perfect eventuality is prior. However, the sort of past perfect you have here, anchored on no evident past Reference Time, is common and in all but the most formal registers if the context implies a semantically appropriate Reference Time.

In this case the speaker thinks of his hope as a state which lasted until he discovered it was groundless, and thus lay before that discovery. The discovery is omitted in your quotation, but it may have been mentioned already:

I learned this morning that my wife has been called in for an extra shift tomorrow night. I had hoped [i.e., until that point] that we would leave tomorrow, but it won't be possible.

And even if the discovery has not been mentioned, it is present in the speaker's mind; and most hearers will assume that some kind of obstacle became evident before the present moment.

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