The rule says if the order of two actions/events is clear then the past perfect is not necessary, i.e. you can use past simple. So if the sentence has before or after then the order is clear and therefore the rule applies. The site here says the first sentence is incorrect. Is he/she right? If so, how do you explain what appears, to me, to be contradictory?

If the Past Perfect is not referring to an action at a specific time, Past Perfect is not optional. Compare the examples below. Here Past Perfect is referring to a lack of experience rather than an action at a specific time. For this reason, Simple Past cannot be used.


She never saw a bear before she moved to Alaska. Not Correct

She had never seen a bear before she moved to Alaska. Correct

They say "a lack of experience rather than an action". Saying that just does not solve the problem I have which is the past simple fits the rule of order of events. Not seeing is a negative event with the verb "to see".

I hope the answer won't be this is how we speak or this is how English works or since when languages are logical!

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    Possibly related.
    – None
    Dec 26, 2013 at 18:49
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    I think that many native speakers would quite happily use OP's "incorrect" version. And that even more would do so if we replace before with until. To my mind, the cited "rule" smacks more of pedantic prescriptivism than a simple description of actual usage. Dec 26, 2013 at 20:07
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    FumbleFingers is entirely correct. Few native speakers would find either sentence confusing or ambiguous. The main "difference", if you can call it that, is a perceived level of formality. I would use the past perfect in writing simply because it feels more formal, but in speech there would be no significant difference. Dec 26, 2013 at 20:40
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    The rule says if the order of two actions/events is clear then the past perfect is not necessary @learner, this is a pretty good rule and you should stick to it. Grammar is often arbitrary and dogmatic.
    – JayHook
    Dec 26, 2013 at 21:02
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    The site is wrong, as many above have noted. As far as I know the site is not even describing a common prescriptive rule, i.e. you can say "she never saw a bear before she moved to Alaska" in formal writing and an editor won't mark it wrong.
    – hunter
    Dec 26, 2013 at 21:09

1 Answer 1


This "authority" is in error; the past perfect is not necessarily required here, although there are circumstances in which it would be preferred in formal discourse, and the simple past is not incorrect, although there are circumstances in which its use would be deprecated in formal discourse.

This is in the first instance a matter of context— specifically, what you are trying to express and what time you are talking about, what grammarians call Reference Time.

Perfect constructions do not express events prior to Reference Time; they express a state grounded in prior events which obtains at Reference Time. So if you are talking about a time in the past when your subject's previous unfamiliarity with bears was of immediate relevance, the past perfect will be appropriate:

As she was hiking in the Tongass National Forest she was suddenly confronted by a menacing dark creature her own height and twice her mass. She did not recognize it—she had never seen a bear before she moved to Alaska.

But if your Reference Time, the time you are speaking about, lies before the time at which she moved to Alaska, a past perfect will not be appropriate:

She was in her youth a keen student of wildlife—kangaroos, wallaby, emus—but she never visited zoos, which depressed her, so she never saw a bear before she moved to Alaska.

In less cut-and-dried circumstances, usage varies: formal usage and British colloquial usage tends to employ the past perfect more often than US colloqual usage. If you have an appetite for technical grammar, I modestly recommend our Canonical Post on Perfect Constructions, particularly sections 3.2 and 4. If not, the best 'rule of thumb' respecting use of the past perfect is FumbleFingers‘ Perfect Truism:

”Don’t use the perfect unless you need it.”

  • I like the examples! In my comment to this question I said I thought people would be more likely to use simple past if it was until rather than before. That's still my gut feeling, but I can't quite tie it in with your perspective here. Am I missing something, barking up the wrong tree, or what? Do you see a difference between until/before in this/these context/s? And if so, does it seem to you to have any implications for the tense choice? Dec 27, 2013 at 1:58
  • @FumbleFingers Indeed there is a difference. Never Y until X seems to me more likely in contexts such as this, where X provides the context in which Y was achieved; and Never X before Y is more likely in contexts where Y provides a context which makes X unrealizable: "He never managed to sail on the QE before she was retired." By and large, then, until is more slightly more likely to provide a context which calls for a perfect. But there's a lot of statistics there, which will not govern in any particular instance. Dec 27, 2013 at 2:15
  • Bending that example slightly, "He never managed to see the QE2 before/until she was retired". With until, it's implicit that he did actually see her sometime later. But I would say before can sometimes be used in contexts where he never saw her at all. Dec 27, 2013 at 2:37
  • @FumbleFingers You are quite right; before can be used in either context, until only in contexts where he did see/sail on her. Dec 27, 2013 at 2:44
  • Now I think I fully understand your answer after yesterday's questions that comprise the RT! I've been reading your article intermittently but I have not finished it yet. Thank you very much
    – learner
    Dec 30, 2013 at 23:17

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