In newspapers I've read "had killed" in some places and just "killed" in others. I'm confused about the use of the past perfect and the simple past in reporting speech.

For example:

  • Police arrested the killer who had killed his boss.
  • Police arrested the killer who killed his boss.

1 Answer 1


The use of past perfect is to communicate that an event completed before another event in the past.

In the sentence

Police arrested the killer who had killed his boss,

'had killed' makes it clear that the event of the killer killing his boss (say, event 1) occurred and got completed before the event of the police arresting the killer (say, event 2). You should note that the event 2 is also in past, but event 1 occurred in a time more past than event 2. In fact, in French, past perfect is called 'plus-que-parfait', which translates in English as 'more past'.

The second sentence

Police arrested the killer who killed his boss

uses simple past tense. It does not communicate that an event occurred before another event. It simply puts the time of occurrence of both the events in the past, offering no relative time frame.

In daily use, people might overlook this difference, expecting the reader to infer the time frame by their own discretion. I mean, while reading the second sentence, it is quite obvious that the police can only arrest the killer after he had killed his boss. So, in the given case, both sentences should be interpreted as the same, though, one would use the first sentence with 'had killed' to be grammatically perfect.

Hope this helps!

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .