The sentence from my grammar book:

When he had read the letter he burned it.

Why not just "when he read "? These are consequntive actions, aren't they?

  • 1
    The perfect tenses depict an action as having been completed. This is a choice available to the speaker. The actions can be presented as discrete consecutive actions or as one action following upon the completion of the other. We cannot say "When he read the letter he burned it."—not unless he has laser eyes.
    – TimR
    Sep 23, 2017 at 10:49
  • And if we said " He read the letter and then he burned it" ? Is it right?
    – Koss M
    Sep 23, 2017 at 19:30
  • That would be fine. "and then" expresses the idea that the actions were consecutive.
    – TimR
    Sep 24, 2017 at 1:14
  • Thanks! And are not these actions consequentive in the following example: " When actress had taken off her make-up I saw the tired face of a hardworking person."? Why again past perfect??
    – Koss M
    Sep 24, 2017 at 12:37
  • I try to answer this below.
    – TimR
    Sep 24, 2017 at 13:08

2 Answers 2


With both actions in the simple past, the two actions are presented one after the other but the listener is free to understand them as sequential or as simultaneous. Whether they are sequential or simultaneous is a semantic choice, not a grammatical one.

He picked up the cup and took a sip. sequential

He stood on one foot and recited the alphabet backwards. simultaneous?

Our semantic choice is governed by our sense of whether the verbs are goal-oriented. Does the action have an end?

A speaker has a third choice, actions that are not simply sequential, and not simply simultaneous:

He took her hand in his and asked her to marry him.

When he had taken her hand in his, he asked her to marry him.

With the simple past, we are free to understand the two actions as sequential or as simultaneous. He took her hand in his and (then?) popped the question.

With the perfect, those two actions are sequential and interrelated, the first action, his taking her hand in his, was achieved before the second action occurred.

In order to understand the perfect, you must understand what it means to present an action as one that is achieved or complete. The act of his taking her hand in his was fully realized. It was not beginning, nor was it in progress. It had been done.

The perfect establishes a point in time in respect to which other actions are situated in time.

  • 1
    Thank you for you brilliant explanation! So both are grammatically correct and the question is only up the meaning that author wants to convey. One more question just born , why in your comment you wrote "It had been done"? Why not was done?
    – Koss M
    Sep 24, 2017 at 16:15
  • it had been done is consonant with the example I gave. His taking her hand in his had been completed before he popped the question. The past participle done, as predicate complement with BE, does not clearly establish a reference time (the time of the achieved action), but with auxiliary HAVE that reference time is clearly established.
    – TimR
    Sep 24, 2017 at 16:39

Past Perfect here deploys the state of a completed action that took place before another action in the past. This means that "He first read the letter and then he burned it"

If we say "When he read the paper he burned it" it may mean that during reading he burned it but may also mean that when he finished reading it he burned it so this leaves us with ambiguity. In order to filter it out and tell us precisely what came after what the author used the Past Perfect tense.

  • Thanks, so both are grammatically correct and could be used.
    – Koss M
    Sep 26, 2017 at 7:27

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