It seems like I am caught between tenses again. I watched a youtube video and heard the speaker say:

I could imagine that even the earliest human beings had asked themselves the questions: "Why am I here?" "Why is the universe so mysterious?" etc.

Why does he use the past perfect here? Shouldn´t it be the simple past or does that have to do with using the modal "could" here?

  • 2
    This is one of those areas most native speakers wouldn't even notice. You could remove the "had" and it would sound equally natural and grammatical: I could imagine that even the earliest human beings asked themselves the question: "Why am I here?" It doesn't really matter either way.
    – J.R.
    Mar 19, 2018 at 21:35
  • It can be a backshift occasioned by I could imagine.
    – TimR
    Mar 19, 2018 at 21:59
  • Could you elaborate on that? I have heard the term "backshift" only in context with reported speech. @J.R. I believe it to be true but it is not what I was taught concerning tenses. I will have to teach formal rules in school one day, and I couldn't find anything concerning this usage of the past perfect in 5 grammar books including Cambridge and Oxford! Mar 19, 2018 at 22:09
  • @J.R. is right. There are usages in the English language, and probably all languages, where there are no straightforward rules. The language native speakers speak is not determined by rules. If you want rules then you must construct them by observation of what native speakers say. If your 'rules' contradict what the speakers of the language say, then your rules are wrong.
    – JeremyC
    Mar 19, 2018 at 22:59

3 Answers 3


There is no reason to use the past perfect, as it does not alter the meaning of the sentence in any way. The speaker could have said:

... even the earliest human beings asked themselves the questions ...

I expect the most common reason you hear this in unscripted narrative is that the speaker has a particular time frame in mind and is unconsciously relating one event to some subsequent event, possibly (as Tᴚoɯɐuo says) the speaker's own current speculation.

There is nothing ungrammatical about this use of the past perfect here. All it means is that the expected reference to another event has been left out as unimportant. This also gives some insight into the speaker's frame of mind -- but this too might not be especially significant.

Another example

When speculating about the construction of the Pyramids, many believed that the Egyptians had built them using slave labor, but archaeologists have evidence that the builders were ordinary laborers more akin to feudal serfs than what we think of as "slaves".

Again, no reason to use the past perfect, except that the writer unconsciously relates the time frame of the building to the time frame of the speculating,


In this sentence, "could" is used to talk about the past, while the past perfect "had asked" is used to talk about the past of the past. To better illustrate how this context uses the past of the past, compare these two sentences:

While I'm watching the presentation now, I can imagine that the earliest human beings asked themselves the questions. ("asked" in today's past)

While I was watching the presentation yesterday, I could imagine that the earliest human beings had asked themselves the questions. ("had asked" in yesterday's past)

In formal English, this context requires the past perfect. In everyday speech you may hear either the past perfect or the simple past.


Unfortunately, the sentence is out of context. The past perfect tense has several uses. In this case, it seems most likely that it would refer to the relative timing of events. If the speaker was speaking about something the earliest humans did, e.g., constructing Stonehenge, and was referring to those humans' questioning as preceding their constructing, then the past perfect tense was appropriate in placing the questioning before the constructing. If the speaker was speaking about the earliest humans' questioning without other context, then the speaker's use of the past perfect tense was incorrect.

The use of "could" is just mystifying. Was the speaker saying that he hadn't imagined that the earliest humans' [had] asked themselves those questions, but it was possible for him to imagine it? If he did imagine it, then the use of "could" was incorrect. I'm inclined to believe the latter.

I suspect the speaker doesn't know correct language usage. So, probably a good idea not to use his sentences as examples for your speaking or writing.

  • For what it's worth, the irrealis mood is often used by even very fluent speakers for things whose reality would seem to be entirely dictated by whim, just like this. For example, "I could wish {XYZ}" was, a few hundred years ago, as much as 4% of all uses of "wish", although it's slowly and steadily gone out of favor. But this sort of dreamy, intellectual usage would still be one of the best places to find it. Aug 26, 2018 at 4:18
  • "Irrealis mood" is a technical term; WP lists more than a dozen shades of this not-entirely-real. "Fluent" is logically a very gradable adjective, since two native speakers can have different levels of skill in the language. (Never mind someone who has put 1200 hours into learning the language, but is not native and occasionally makes very minor errors, vs someone with a mere 750 hours, who makes minor errors perhaps a little more often.) And per the linked graph, ~0.5% of uses of "wish" today are directly preceded by "could". Aug 26, 2018 at 5:15
  • (I didn't set about to use irrealis multiple times in my initial comment, but apparently I slipped into self-demonstration without thinking about it. "Would still be one of the best places to find it" is, I think, irrealis mostly because there's no actual guarantee anyone will try to find it. But this is merely justifying after the fact: it felt like the right verb to use, that's all.) Aug 26, 2018 at 5:21
  • Your "'Irrealis mood' is a technical term" links to a wikipedia page that begins with "the main set of grammatical moods that indicate that a certain situation or action IS NOT KNOWN TO HAVE HAPPENED as the speaker is talking. This contrasts with the realis moods." (emphasis added) Again. Do you think the speaker did not know whether or not he had imagined whatever about the earliest humans? Aug 26, 2018 at 5:38
  • <a href="books.google.com/ngrams/…. About that graph. The search choice is "could wish/wish". If you enter just "could wish", you get this graph. Notice the peak of less than 0.0006% around 1810 pretty much steadily decreasing to 0.00005% in 2000 (the latest year on the graph).</a> Aug 26, 2018 at 5:43

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