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Many grammar books claim that the word before makes using the Past Perfect optional. For istance, the following example sentence:

I had visited John in 2010 before I moved to England in 2015

might be expressed by using just the Past Simple:

I visited John in 2010 before I moved to England in 2015

My question is: Can we use the same rule for the time expressions conveying the idea of something happening in the distant past? Take, for example ages ago

During my studies I learned that our ancestors had lived in Africa ages ago.

Can we write this sentence withouth the Past Perfect?

During my studies I learned that our ancestors lived in Africa ages ago.

Plus: If we can do this, do we leave the sentence's meaning the same by doing so?

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    As stand-alone sentences, I would say, yes, you may do as you have done. However, within context, these sentences would have subtle differences. I haven't downvoted your question or anything, but it would behoove you to check out this duplicate question. – Teacher KSHuang Mar 20 '17 at 9:18
  • The duplicate question you gave the link for deals with the Past Perfect in wider manner and I read it several times before posting my question. I know it might be hard for native English speakers to understand, but those broad grammar explanations are sometimes simply not enough, and that is why English learners tend to ask more detailed questions, that seem to be repeating what has already been asked. Thank you for not downvoting my question sir. Thank you for your answer! – IGO Mar 20 '17 at 12:13
  • Hi, IGO, I should have been more specific and directed you to the answer only, and specifically, this sentence: The key difference between the past perfect and past simple tenses is the explicit order of two (or more) events in the past. Meanwhile, I'm glad you had read it prior to posting your question, in which case, I would have mentioned this in my question and mentioned how it had not been enough (as in what part of it was unclear still). – Teacher KSHuang Mar 20 '17 at 12:40
  • Honestly, I'm not here for the rating, so I don't downvote often, but I'm just giving you some advice in case you wonder why you might get flagged/downvoted sometimes, which can be discouraging, as I have experienced myself. – Teacher KSHuang Mar 20 '17 at 12:40
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The past perfect is used to relate two events that happened in the past. The actual time frame is not important. If you don't need to relate two events, then it's generally preferable to use the simple past. Some examples:

  1. I learned our ancestors lived in Africa.
  2. I learned our ancestors had lived in Africa before migrating to almost every habitable corner of the planet.

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  1. Legend says that the prophetess Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy. Unfortunately, everyone thought her mad and didn't believe her.
  2. Legend says that the prophetess Cassandra had foreseen the destruction of Troy years before the city actually was conquered. Unfortunately, everyone thought her mad and didn't believe her.

I'm not certain that "before" plays any significant role here. The past perfect is generally optional, regardless of which adverb you use to relate the sentences:

I went to sleep after I had finished all my homework
I went to sleep after I finished all my homework.

I could not pay him because my wallet had been stolen
I could not pay him because my wallet was stolen.

and so on. Note I say generally optional, but not always. For example:

By the time Alex finished his studies, he had lived in London for over eight years.

Here the simple past (he lived) doesn't really work, since the sentence wants to express a definite relationship between the events. Although here I think the past perfect progressive works better, since it emphasizes an action just completed:

By the time Alex finished his studies, he had been living in London for over eight years.

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  • What about: "I learned our ancestors lived in Africa before migrating to almost every habitable corner of the planet." ? To my hear, this is also correct, even though the version with the Past Perfect that you gave sounds clearer – IGO Mar 22 '17 at 17:47
  • Yes, as I mention the perfect tenses are almost always optional. It's useful when relating two events, but there's usually many ways to say the same thing. I agree that proper and appropriate use of the perfect tense can seem more elegant. – Andrew Mar 22 '17 at 18:30
  • I think I get it now, thank you for your feedback Andrew. – IGO Mar 22 '17 at 20:29

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