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When the brothers were reunited, Hans explained how it was that he was still alive. After having been wounded towards the end of the war, he had been sent to hospital and was separated from his unit. The hospital had been bombed(1) and Hans had made his way back into Western Germany on foot. Meanwhile, his unit was lost and all records of him had been destroyed. Hans returned to his family home, but the house had been bombed(2) and no one in the neighborhood knew what had become of the inhabitants. Assuming that his family had been killed during an air raid, Hans settled down in a village fifty miles away where he had remained ever since.

In the above paragraph, there are nine verbs in past perfect tense. I think I understand why past perfect is necessary for having been wounded, had been bombed(2), had become of, had been killed, and had remained. However, is past perfect necessary in had been sent, had been bombed(1), had made his way, had been destroyed? Can we use simple past instead?

  • 1
    If you were telling Hans' story instead of telling this story of Hans telling a story, you could use simple past for all of them. – Tyler James Young Jan 29 '14 at 3:24
  • You mean even "had remained" can be replaced with "remained" in the text without making a grammar mistake? – user4140 Jan 29 '14 at 3:31
  • Sure, as long as you changed "ever since" to something like "until reuniting with his brothers." It's the "ever since" that makes it seem like you need "had remained", though, not the verb. – Tyler James Young Jan 29 '14 at 3:44
  • And "having been wounded" can be replaced with "Being wounded"? Would this change the order of the events? – user4140 Jan 29 '14 at 3:57
  • Yes, it can, and no, it would not. You could even say "after he was wounded" if you wanted to. – Tyler James Young Jan 29 '14 at 4:02
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The text given in the first post uses the tenses according to the rules of reported speech. The rules are: He said + Past/Past Perfect/ Conditional 2 (refering to present/past/future time). "Hans explained" is the hint that what follows is in reported speech. This is literary style. In colloquial language that would be too complicated and people would present what Hans said in a different, much simpler way.

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Simple Past & Past Pefect are both used to talk about things that happened in the past. However we use past perfect to talk about something that happened before another action in the past, which is usually expressed by the past simple.

e.g.

"I had already eaten my dinner when he called."

In the paragraph in question has the event of Hans telling the story which is in simple past. But the story of war has taken place before that and thus the use of past perfect is justified here.

However you will see the use of simple past in:

was separated from
his unit was lost
no one in the neighborhood knew

Hans settled down in a villag
Hans returned to his family home

The first three are justified by the rule that when combing two past perfect sentences in one(using and,or etc.), you make one of them simple past.

I am not sure about the other two but I think they are being said by the original author (not Hans), and hence simple past.

One more thing to notice here is that the whole war story has been told in passive voice, that makes the use of past perfect even more confusing.

  • Thank you, Dipak. What confuses me now is "His unit was lost and all records of him had been destroyed." Usually I see sentences where the event described before "and" is in past perfect tense and the event after "and" is in past simple, which implies that the later event happened as a result of the former event, like in "he had been sent to hospital and was separated from his unit". But in "His unit was lost and all records of him had been destroyed", does the order of tenses correspond to the order of events, i.e., "his unit being lost" happened after "his records being destroyed"? – user4140 Feb 2 '14 at 14:50
  • @user4140: a compound sentence in past perfect does not imply that the later event happened as a result of the former event. In fact, the definition of a compound sentence is that it is composed of at least two independent clauses. And thus, the order does not matter. The sentence would make same sense if it was "Has unit had been lost and all records of him were destroyed". – kmdhrm Feb 6 '14 at 4:35
  • Thank you very much for your answer. So what is the point of using different tenses in the sentence "His unit was lost and all records of him had been destroyed"? Does it also make the same sense if it was "His unit was lost and all records of him was destroyed", or, if it was "His unit had been lost and all records of him had been destroyed"? – user4140 Feb 6 '14 at 15:11
  • And, Dipak, should "His hospital had been bombed" and "Hans had made his way back into Western Germany on foot" be put in different tenses, because they are in a compound sentence? – user4140 Feb 6 '14 at 15:42

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