Only the photographs on the mantelpiece really showed how much time had passed. Ten years ago, there had been lots of pictures of what looked like a large pink beach ball wearing different-colored bonnets -- but Dudley Dursley was no longer a baby, and now the photographs showed a large blond boy riding his first bicycle, on a carousel at the fair, playing a computer game with his father, being hugged and kissed by his mother. The room held no sign at all that another boy lived in the house, too.

This is from the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Couple of things I don't understand:

  1. How come Ten years ago can work with past perfect tense? As I know, 'ago' denotes simple past tense.

  2. Is "what looked like a large pink beach ball" referring to Dudley Dursley? I can't image one could look like a large pink beach ball at all!

3 Answers 3


When Rowling is describing the "large" boy, she is trying to invoke images of pudgy, round features – hence the comparison to an inflated beach ball. Since the book is talking about photographs with bonnets, we assume that, as a baby, he had a large, round head.

As for 'ago', there's no reason the simple past tense couldn't have been used:

Ten years ago, there were lots of pictures of what looked like a large pink beach ball...

Either version makes it clear there used to be pictures of Dudley as a baby. Perhaps Rowling wanted to use "had been" instead, to emphasize that there are still pictures of Dudley hanging in the house. Either way, I doubt she wrestled with the issue, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she gave it no thought at all, and just whisked out the sentence as it had first been conjured in her mind.

Judging by the sheer number of questions posted to ELL on this topic, the concept of past perfect vs. the simple past seems one of the most vexing for learners to grasp, and for natives to explain.

  • I think she is narrating in the past tense and some thing occurs at a point in time before what occurs in the utterances with simple past narrative tense; or up to a point in time in the past. I had considered this answer yesterday when I formulated mine own. I don't think simple past would have meant the same thing.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 14:08

ago is not exclusively used with the simple past tense. ELL user Matt Cline has provided us with an excellent example in his answer to this post:

There's nothing special about "ago" in particular. "Ago" just clarifies that the action took place in the past.

For example, the present perfect is equally incorrect in this sentence:

The museum acquired a rock from a volcano that has erupted in 1991.

"Ago" is not used here, but the present perfect is still incorrect, because the eruption took place in the past.

The example in question takes place sometime in the past, but Dudley's baby photos were hung on the mantelpiece 10 years before that, hence the usage of the present perfect.

As for the beach ball comparison, there is a Harry Potter Wikia article dedicated to this very subject, which states:

Dudley Dursley was compared to a beach ball when he was a young baby, due to his rotundness.


Sentence: Ten years ago, there had been lots of pictures of what looked like a large pink beach ball wearing different-colored bonnets -- but Dudley Dursley was no longer a baby,[etc.]

"Ten years ago" means at a point in time ten years ago. So anything before that can be in the past perfect tense. The sentences conveys two points in time.

The time before and leading up to the ten years ago, and the past tense that comes after that when writing from a present point of view.

Yes, Dudley Dursley looked a like a big pink beach ball.

Here is an example I have made up for you:

Ten years ago, she had been working very hard. But now, she was no longer working as she was tired. So she quit her job and became an athlete. It was fun while it lasted.

In the sentence above, "had been working" goes up to the point where she was no longer working.

When you narrate in the past tense, as in these two examples, you use the simple past and/or continuous tense. There may be things that precede the point in time signaled by those tenses. This can pretty much parallel telling you a story in the present tense:

Telling you this now,I would say: Five days ago, she was working very hard. Now, she is not working and she is finally enjoying herself.

Narrating that in the past: Five days ago, she had been working very hard. Then, she was not working and was finally enjoying myself.

  • 1
    "enjoying myself" is confusing. shouldn't be "enjoying herself"?
    – dan
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 2:55
  • @dan It is not confusing. It is wrong and I have fixed it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 14:03

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