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Consider this test from CAGIU [Section 5.2, question number 5]:

The boy told me that he .................... his train ticket and didn't know how he would get home.

  1. had lost
  2. lost
  3. 1 and 2 both are correct.

The answer is had lost, the first option.


If we can avoid using past perfect when the chronological order is clear, then why we are not allowed to do so in this example? In my opinion the chronological order is clear without using perfect.

Am I wrong?!

If the reason for using past perfect is something else?

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    We are allowed to use the simple past here, and not only that, we almost always do! I think the objective of the question is to find out whether you know how the past perfect can be used to express the order of past events precisely. In natural speech, though, we often use the simple past in such sentences. Jul 4 '17 at 20:52
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    Had lost gives idea of completed action (Action Verb) and Only lost just gives idea of lost card (Status). Both uses are correct having minor difference.
    – user4084
    Jul 5 '17 at 6:02
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Yes: when the chronological order is clear we often use the simple past, as you surmised and @P.E.Dant confirmed. It may be informal but is probably more frequent.

Edit: To me, the fact that they don't accept "both" as an answer indicates an insistence on artificially treating language as a system with one tool for each job, as described below.


Because questions like this come up often, I'll express some general thoughts on language tests that may serve as useful pointers.

  • Tests are written to evaluate a supposedly ideal usage. By this one often means a usage that represents a close correspondence between the grammar and the meaning. We can logically deduce that both sentences must mean that the boy lost his ticket before he told you about it. But only the past perfect grammatically compels you to read that sequence. Writers of language tests want you to use linguistic knowledge as much as possible to work out an answer — not semantic knowledge, like "one cannot tell about X before X happens".

  • This is like the semi-mythical teacher with whom every English speaker has this exchange:

    — "Mrs. Brown, can I go to the washroom?"
    — "I don't know; can you?"
    — "Sorry... may I go to the washroom?"

    The word "can" works just fine here, but forcing the student to make a distinction between "can" and "may" in theory makes the question more precise. To some people, this qualifies it not as a correct choice but as the correct choice.

  • Tests are based on the implicit fiction that language is a perfect system designed to express meaning unambiguously, a system in which every tool has its "correct" use. But in real life, we rely on context and knowledge to close the gaps inherent in linguistic systems or produced by people. Test writers know that too, but for the purposes of evaluation they anticipate "ideal" uses of the tool — perhaps because such questions can be marked by computers.

  • Tests are written not to the sentence, but to the topic. To the untrained eye, it appears that you're being asked to find the ideal item to fill a blank in a sentence. But that's not how the question was written. The test writers knew the test had to cover the past perfect, so they created an ideal blank for that item. The catch is that the function is not always reciprocal. The kind of sentence the past perfect "prefers" may also be "preferred" by the simple past! Questions that have more than one correct answer result from the failure to notice such alternatives. A carefully written test will avoid such questions, but then the sentences will be artificial, because it's rarely the case that every word in a natural sentence is inevitable.

  • At the end of the day, you take tests with these things in mind. Tests can be useful for gauging your progress, but the more interesting gauge is actually that you correctly questioned the test. If you know more than the test, you should not try to learn from the test itself.*


* This is an interesting issue with tools like Duolingo: every question is both a test and a learning point. Therefore, you will learn a version of the language that primarily satisfies test requirements. It's hard to strike the right balance with such a system: Either the criteria will be too strict and your knowledge will be artificial, or they will be too loose and you won't be pushed to learn (or they will fluctuate between those extremes). Luckily, the brain is a linguistic marvel and will often notify you when something doesn't "smell right", so an attentive, savvy learner can still get quite a lot out of such systems.

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    Thanks for the answer. The thing that confused me was that the test writers ask whether or not both can be used? For example, in the test number 9 form the same section we read: "Thomas explained that he (had gone / went) early because he felt ill". In this case the book says both simple and perfect are correct. That's my main source of confusion. In fact, I think test writers hadn't considered a constant policy in this test.
    – Cardinal
    Jul 5 '17 at 8:11
  • @Cardinal Hmm, good observation. For them to exclude the simple altogether is even more... well, you get the idea. Jul 5 '17 at 13:17
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I would say it in the past perfect ("had lost"); however, I hear native English speakers use the simple past ("lost") all the time. The simple past usage is informal, however, because we are supposed to use the past perfect in your example to show the difference in time (The boy told you after the event had happened). For example:

"I informed the police officer that I had witnessed the robbery."

"I did my homework after I had watched the baseball game."

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