From the movie Lucky Number Slevin:

(He was) Relegated to the past tense. (He was) Sent from an "is" to a "was" before he'd had his breakfast.

The context is Morgan Freeman's character is telling another person how his son was killed in the morning, before breakfast. The use of past perfect tense here doesn't make sense to me, because it contradicts what the past perfect tense is used for. (e.g. When is the past perfect exactly needed?) Either "before he had his breakfast" or "before he would have his breakfast" seem better options. Does the past perfect tense read fine to you? Why?


5 Answers 5


A state of completion can be fixed in time by the perfect tenses.

He had eaten his breakfast by 9AM.

In other words, breakfast was finished by 9AM.

To "have" breakfast is to eat it, not to have eaten it.

"Do you want to have breakfast?" is an invitation to eat, not a question about whether you wish you had already eaten.

If you do want to use the verb tense to mean "finished breakfast", we need the past participle of lexical verb "have", which is "had":

I haveaux hadlex breakfast already today. No more for me, thanks.

I hadaux hadlex breakfast already when she offered me some yesterday. I told her, no thanks.

Thus, the phrase before he had had his breakfast refers to a time in the past prior to its having been finished. He was killed before he had finished breakfast.

  • 2
    Well, yeah that's something I am very familiar with. I even link to a detailed usage explanation on this site. I asked my question because I know all this, and the sentence doesn't accord to all this. So it's really a question about the sentence specifically.
    – Eddie Kal
    Dec 8, 2017 at 19:53
  • 4
    But the sentence does accord to all of this.
    – TimR
    Dec 8, 2017 at 19:53
  • 1
    He wasn't killed "before breakfast". He was killed before he had had breakfast.
    – TimR
    Dec 8, 2017 at 19:54
  • It actually should be, "He had been killed before he had breakfast", but that's very formal, fancy English. The reason is that his death occurs first; then breakfast follows.
    – Nick
    Dec 8, 2017 at 20:35
  • 5
    That is not the only way the past perfect is used, Nicholas. This is perfectly valid: Before he had even gotten in the door the kids started asking about pizza. The asking about pizza occurs before he got inside, but we don't have to make that asking the "earlier" of the two events: Before he got inside, the kids had started asking about pizza
    – TimR
    Dec 8, 2017 at 20:57

Michael Swan comments on this issue in Practical English Usage:

In clauses with before, we often use present perfect and past perfect tenses to emphasise the idea of completion. You can't go home before I've signed the letters. (= ... before the moment when I have completed the letters.) He went out before I had finished my sentence. (= ... before the moment when I had completed my sentence.) (Note that in sentences like the last, a past perfect tense can refer to a time later than the action of the main verb. This is unusual.)

  • @NicholasCastagnola Please don't post your point of view in the comments section under the question and every single answer, and then post a comment complaining about downvotes on your own answer. If you want to present your point of view, you can do so in your own answer, which you have done. There is no need to put it everywhere else as well. This is a question-and-answer site, not a discussion forum.
    – user230
    Dec 8, 2017 at 21:36

With Respect to Nicholas I agree with TRomano and Mv Log based on reference to Michael Swan.

CGEL, Michael Swan, and Hornby all state that we can use either the Past Simple or the Past Perfect after the conjuction "before".

In order to make it clearer I will swap "had" for "started eating".

So all four variants will be correct:

  1. He was sent from an "is" to a "was" before he had started eating his breakfast.

  2. He was sent from an "is" to a "was" before he started eating his breakfast.

  3. He had been sent from an "is" to a "was" before he started eating his breakfast.

  4. He had been sent from an "is" to a "was" before he had started eating his breakfast.

The main idea is that he hadn't even started eating before he was killed. "had had" may either mean "had started" or "had finished" and this may be a bit of a confusion to most readers. I know I've had it before I had found out about it and learned to tell the difference.

"Practical English Usage" by Michael Swan. Page #84.

  • He went out before I had finished my sentence.

A Past Perfect tense can refer to a time later than the action of the main verb.

Here follows:

A special way to use "before" preceding the Past Perfect in reference to an action appearing later: one that was not completed or that didn't yet start.

Here's the printed quote from Michael Swan:

enter image description here

Here's a quote from English Grammar Online:

enter image description here

Here's a quote from Applied English Grammar and Composition by Dr Sharma M.M.:

enter image description here

  • 1
    It suffices to google "before he had had" which returns some 2.5m articles: They dismissed him before he had had a chance to apologize. She sacked him before he had had a chance to explain his behaviour. and so on. Dec 9, 2017 at 8:50

Since dead people don't generally eat,

... before he could have breakfast


... before he could break his fast

would be correct. Morgan and Nick both err.

To clarify, the sentence as written is perfectly reasonable grammar, but it's illogical in the circumstances.


I disagree with everyone's answer thus far. It should be,

"before he had breakfast." (past simple)

See https://www.englishpractice.com/grammar/time-conjunctions-perfect-tense/


Normally, the past perfect precedes the conjunction before and follows the conjunction after:

"I had run a mile before I ate breakfast."

"I ate breakfast after I had run a mile."

In the example given above, "He was killed before he had had breakfast" is incorrect English; it should read:

"He had been killed before he had breakfast."

The reason for this is that his death occurs prior to his eating breakfast. The past perfect is used to tell the listener or reader which event or events in the past occurred first:

"I had answered the question before the teacher asked it."

"The teacher asked the question after I had (already) answered it."

"I mowed the grass after I had eaten lunch.

"I had eaten lunch before I mowed the grass.

Now compare the last example above to the following sentence:

"I ate lunch after I had mown the grass."

In this example, my eating lunch follows in time in the past my mowing the grass. In the original example, the actions are flip-flopped.

I hope that might have helped you out. Take care and good luck.

P.S.. The examples given by others in which the past perfect follows the conjunction "before" and the past simple precedes the same conjunction is often heard in spoken English, but it is merely a common error in speech. In other words, it's incorrect English, but it's pretty prevalent. Like the subjunctive mood, this is another pet peeve of mine regarding how native speakers use the language.

  • Do you have any evidence for the assertion in your postscript? Neither link addresses this case (and the terminology "Past Perfect Simple Tense" is a mouthful and contradictory). The argument seems to rely on a too strict reading of a few grammar rules coupled with a prescriptivist viewpoint
    – eques
    Dec 8, 2017 at 22:46
  • @NicholasCastagnola I don't understand why so many downvoted your answer either. Also can you elaborate on the point you made about the subjunctive mood in spoken English?
    – Eddie Kal
    Dec 9, 2017 at 7:10
  • They downvoted it because they don't know what they're talking about and I pointed it out; so, as not to look bad, they tried to make me look like a fool. I showed them all the evidence they wanted to see and still they kept asking me to show them evidence as if they were "Flat Earthers"--people who still think the Earth is flat. As for the subjunctive, what do you want to know? Ask a question on this forum about it and I shall answer it. I just said that the subjunctive is a common error like the one above.
    – Nick
    Dec 9, 2017 at 7:14
  • @NicholasCastagnola I am just curious why you said the subjunctive is a common error. What do you mean it is an error? Also, upvoted.
    – Eddie Kal
    Dec 9, 2017 at 7:17
  • I said that, "Like the subjunctive mood, this past perfect usage with the conjunction before is a common error in spoken English." In other words, native speakers make mistakes with the past perfect with the conjunction before just as much as they fail to use or misuse the subjunctive mood in spoken English. I'm not saying the subjunctive mood is an error; I'm saying that they often skip the subjunctive mood and, instead, use the indicative when it is not correct. Sometimes they even use the subjunctive mood when it should be the indicative. Just a common error.
    – Nick
    Dec 9, 2017 at 7:19

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .