I think this sentence is grammatically wrong, but there's one thing...

If I say "I read the book last year" I think that I was reading it but I had not finished reading (in the last year). But If I say "I had read the book last year" I think that I was reading it and I had finished reading. So there are two actions in the past - finished and unfinished. How to express them correctly in this simple case?

3 Answers 3


No, you're confusing two different distinctions.

What I think you're going for is the difference between

I was reading the book last year


I read the book last year.

The first is treating your reading it as an extended activity (it doesn't necessarily mean that you didn't finish it during last year, but that might be the case). The second is regarding it as a completed action. You could use that even if it took months: the difference is in how you are choosing to talk about it, not in any objective difference in what happened.

The distinction in the words you are using is between:

I read/was reading the book last year.


I had read/been reading the book last year.

This is the distinction between the simple past and the past perfect (and is indpendent of the choice of simple or continuous, which is why I have put both option in both sentences).

The difference is that if you use the past perfect, you are looking at the event from some point before now, but after the reading. If you have not already established the "story time" from which you are regarding it, then there is no point in using this form, and it would be confusing.

A context where you had established the "story time" would be:

Last night my friend asked me about his favourite book. I had read the book last year, so I could answer him.

Even in this context, "I read the book last year" would not be wrong: it is almost always a stylistic choice whether to use the past perfect or not.


The simple past (and this example) means you finished reading the book last year.

I read the book last year.

If you don't mention another activity that you were doing at the same time, then the past continuous implies you might not have finished it.

I was reading the book last year.

However, if you want to be completely clear, you have to outright say so.

I was reading the book last year, but I didn't finish it until this year.

The past perfect is simply incorrect unless you talk about another event that happened in the past after you read the book:

I had already read the book last year before it was assigned.

Note that this means that both events happened last year. If you place "last year" at the end of the sentence (modifying "was assigned"), it changes the meaning:

I had already read the book before it was assigned last year.

This means it was assigned last year and you had read it at some point in your life before that. If you read it last year and want to talk about something that happened this year, you can use either past perfect or simple past, because the adverbial phrases already clarify the chronology of events, thus either of these would work:

I had read the book last year that was assigned in the course I took this year.
I read the book last year that was assigned in the course I took this year.

In summary, both the simple past and past perfect imply that you finished reading the book. Use the past or present continuous to imply that you haven't finished it.


Neither formulation expresses what you are trying to express. Both of those expressions implies that that book was completely read in the past. Your understanding of the use of "had" in pluperfect constructions is basically correct in typical cases - but unfortunately (at least I would argue) that the verb "read" does not behave well with that tense distinction. You either read something or you did not, and you cannot "unread" something you read.

To really capture the sense that you began but did not complete the book, essay etc...you need to use a compound verb using "started" or "began" e.g. "I started to read..." or even just "I started ...".

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