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I want to talk about achievements of someone who is already dead. What tense should I use? Past perfect or past simple? E.g. "He had achieved so much in his life, he had sent such a powerful message out there." or something like this.

Thank you.

  • Just a warning, if slovakgirl is not a native English speaker: using "achieve" as a verb is OK in this context, but the noun "achievement" also has the technical meaning in British English of "a representation of the coat of arms that someone is entitled to bear, with all the other heraldic information associated with it". So without some context, "The achievements of a deceased person" may give a completely wrong idea of the topic you are going to write about! – alephzero Aug 29 '17 at 0:09
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    @alephzero That is a very technical use of the word "achievements". I am a native British English speaker with a slight interest in heraldry, and it never occurred to me that the title was referring to heraldry. I would be surprised if 10% of the UK even knew of that meaning. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Aug 29 '17 at 7:40
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    As another native BrE speaker, while I feel I have probably heard the technical definition given by @alphazero, that would never be what came to mind. "Achievements" would include things like a first at university, a sporting medal, a public award or other "life achievements". – TripeHound Aug 29 '17 at 8:01
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Use past simple.

Use the past perfect to speak of a time before a referred to past event. You are not referring to the point of death so this is just "events in the past" for which past tense is correct.

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As is very often the case with questions about which tense to use, there is no single answer: it depends on how you are viewing the events or situations, and how you wish your hearers to view them.

If you use the pluperfect (past perfect) you are necessarily locating the events as before some particular point in the past - which may be a point that you have already mentioned, or may be established by this very sentence.

So if you began a story with "He had achieved so much in his life", you are immediately establishing in the reader's mind that your story is set at a time in the past later than all that achieving. If you use the simple past, this sets up no such expectation.

So, in most cases, James K is right that you will want the simple past. But the pluperfect is not wrong, when the effect you want is the effect that it provides.

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Past simple is the way to go:

He achieved so much in his life, he sent such a powerful message out there.

The above sentence is complete. That is what he did, in general, throughout his whole life.

He had achieved so much in his life, he had sent such a powerful message out there (... when he got sick / when he parted / when his time came)

The above sentence seems incomplete, like you want to keep talking about what happened next (his sickness, his death, his leving to another country, whatever).
Past perfect is used when you want to talk about what happened before an explicit time; in this case, of what he did before dying.

What you said is a valid use but, if you just want to say that he lived a happy and wholesome life, past simple is better.

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  • And if I wanted to highlight the importance of the things he achieved while he was alive? Would I still use past simple? – slovakgirl Aug 29 '17 at 9:43
  • @slovakgirl Yes, if you want to put the focus in what he did, what he achieved, then past simple is the best option (notice how we are using past simple even to talk about it?). – walen Aug 29 '17 at 10:02

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