Can we report the matter as below?
Which one is more correct by using Simple past (was stabbed) or Past perfect (had been stabbed)?

  1. Four persons were arrested by the police on Tuesday for the murder of a scrap dealer's son, XYZ (25), who had been stabbed to death on the terrace of a market complex building on the night of October 1.

  2. Four persons were arrested by Ghaziabad police on Tuesday for the murder of a scrap dealer's son, Farmaan (25), who was stabbed to death on the terrace of a market complex building on the night of October 1.

(Source: Article in The Times of India)

  • 3
    Very few writers would use Past Perfect (who had been stabbed) in your example. It serves no purpose in terms of conveying information (since it's contextually/pragmatically obvious the murder must have preceded the arrest), so it's just pointless clutter / distracting complexity. Oct 5 '17 at 12:48

In my opinion, the correct choice in this particular case is past simple.

The reason is that the stabbing is described as a separate event that took place on the night of October 1. It is not a simple background of the arrest.

Another way to look at it is that past perfect describes a state of completeness in the past, rather than an event in the past. If you say "he had been stabbed six hours ago", it means that six hours ago he was already wounded; the stabbing supposedly occurred at some unspecified time before that.

Except of conditional statements (which sometimes use past perfect for another reason), past perfect almost always carries a sense of "already". In the text you quoted, I think this "already" would not make too much sense, so past perfect should not be used.

Looking at the comments, I realize that some speakers would use the perfect in this case, and it would probably be understood just the same. However, consider good rule-of-thumb defined in the Canonical Post about the Perfect is "Don’t use the perfect unless you need it." There is no hard-and-fast rule, but look at that post to see how sentences can sometimes be formed with past simple and still convey the order of events.

In my opinion, the given sentence is clearly understood using past simple, and the past perfect is not needed.

As a counter-example, I think it would be adequate to use the perfect to describe the actions/events of the suspects that directly led to the arrest, such as

The four persons who were arrested by the police on Tuesday had been under surveillance by the police for several weeks.

  • 1
    Present perfect is not used with a specific time point. Past perfect can be. See for example this web page, which gives the example "He told me that he had met her three days before," which would be reported speech for "I met her three days ago." Oct 11 '17 at 12:29
  • I'm commenting here as a speaker of British English. I would say that the Past Perfect is, strictly speaking, correct here because (from my reading of the quotation), 'Tuesday' happened before 'October 1'. When we talk about 2 (or more) past events, those that happened in an earlier past, ie. further back in time, should be described using the Past Perfect. For example, "By the time I arrived at the party, they had left" - they left first (longer ago in the past) and then I arrived.
    – Sue
    Oct 11 '17 at 14:05
  • Thanks for the comments. I still think perfect is not needed here and therefore past simple is preferable. I have edited the answer to provide more explanation and a reference to the canonical post that contains a very good discussion on this dilemma. Oct 17 '17 at 11:54

Both are grammatically correct. The choice is a matter of style.

The past-perfect version gives the additional information that the stabbing happened before the arrest. In context, this is probably redundant but it is easy to imaging a situation in which it could be an important fact.

It could be argued that the past-simple version is better because it is, well, simpler while giving the same information. Personally, I think the past-perfect version gives a better sense of the chronology of events.


That seems to me as a matter of style, where I would choose the first example and use the past perfect.

When you talk about past events, you may want your to convey, that one of these past events you mention actually took place prior to the other past events.

Attempting to mimic the OP example:

I got into the bedroom and I saw my wife under the bed. She was stabbed to death.

I got into the bedroom and I saw my wife under the bed. She had been stabbed to death.

The simple past version describes the past events unfolding in a chronological order, which the narrator wants them revealed in.

The past perfect version also reveals them in chronological order, but differentiates the last event mentioned, as having taken place before the other past events happened.

In the OP's simple past example it is pretty clear from the context, that the stabbing happened prior to the arrest, but you could use the past perfect version instead to indicate this even further.

Modern fiction makes extensive use of the simple past because it gives a strong sense of the action unfolding as you read. When you utilize the past perfect, it conveys the feeling, that the action have already taken place and now you are reading about it.

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