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This is an example (for the past perfect tense) from a grammar book : The boys had played football, meaning they had finished playing, before Susan came. Does this sound natural to a native speaker, or would you prefer the past perfect continuous?

Does it sound better if I add "already" and change "before" to "when"? "The boys had already played football, when Susan came".

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Is it grammatical? Yes. Does it sound natural? Not really.

The problem isn't the grammar. The problem is that there's no obvious reason to relate "the boys playing football" to "Susan's arrival". Is the game somehow meant to prepare them for her? Is Susan planning to check with the boys to make sure they played their game? It doesn't make sense.

Instead, what I think you want to say is that the boys were finished with their game, and therefore ready to do whatever it is Susan intended to do with them.

The boys had finished playing football before Susan came.

Otherwise, if the boys played football and then Susan came, with no relation between the two, just use the simple past:

The boys played football before Susan came.

Of course we can conceive of some strange scenario in which "the boys had played football" makes sense -- but do you really want to learn about unlikely relationships of events, or how to talk about likely events in a natural way?

  • @ Andrew I think why Susan arrived is irrelevant to the tense choice for 'play'. The past perf. cont, 'had been playing', suggests the boys are still playing when she arrived. The past perf. 'had played', explicitly says that the football had ended. The past simple, 'played', sounds most natural. The verb tense does not explicitly say the playing had ended but the use of 'before' does make that clear. – Ross Murray Dec 8 '18 at 3:12
  • @RossMurray "The boys had been playing football when Susan arrived" sounds fine, as long as you add some relevant event after to justify the perfect tense, e.g. "but they broke off and excitedly ran to her car". In any case if I wanted to say something is complete before something else happened, I would either explicitly say "complete", or just use the past tense. In this context the past perfect "had played" is semantically awkward. – Andrew Dec 8 '18 at 5:03
  • We agree that 'had played' sounds awkward. I would agree if you said 'had been playing' followed by 'before' does not spell out the complete sequence of events, but I would say that writers are entitled to omit facts when it suits their purposes. I see no NEED to add anything more. – Ross Murray Dec 8 '18 at 6:32

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