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"A Festival for the Dead is held once a year in Japan. This festival is a cheerful occasion, for on this day, the dead are said to return to their homes and they are welcomed by the living. As they are expected to be hungry after their long journey, food is laid out for them. Specially-made lanterns are hung outside each house to help the dead to find their way. All night long, people dance and sing. In the early morning, the food that had been laid out for the dead is thrown into a river or into the sea as it is considered unlucky for anyone living to ear it. In towns that are near the sea, the tiny lanterns which had been hung in the streets the night before, are placed into the water when the festival is over. Thousands of lanterns slowly drift out to sea guiding the dead on their return journey to the other world. This is a moving spectacle, for crowds of people stand on the shore watching the lanterns drifting away until they can be seen no more."

The paragraph describes the festival in simple present tense except in the phrases "had been laid out" and "had been hung". Why the past perfect here? What are the reference times for these two events? Can we say "were laid out" and "were hung", or, "have been laid out" and "have been hung", or, "are laid out" and "are hung"?

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I prefer the food that was laid out for the dead ... and the tiny lanterns which were hung in the streets the night before.

This is mainly because the state of "being laid out" of the food has already passed, I believe (it seems to to me), and so is "the hanging in the night before". – In the night before convinces me to use the simple past tense. To use the present perfect, I would need to use since instead, for example, the tiny lanterns which has been hung in the streets since the night before.)

As for the food, I believe that the food that has been laid out ... is also possible, but the meaning would be a little different– the food must have been kept being laid out until it was thrown into a river or the sea.

  • Thank you for the answer. But I am still confused. Is this just a style of narrative? – user4140 Jan 30 '14 at 2:17
  • @user4140 I think it's more of what the writer wanted to tell rather than the style. Though the passage sounds odd to me, it's possible to use the past perfect in those two sentences (so we don't need to change anything) IF they cleaned up the food and the lanterns some time between the last night and the morning after. That's the only way I can think of for the use of the past perfect. – Damkerng T. Jan 30 '14 at 9:11

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