There's the following sentence in my Grammar book:

It was a lovely surprise to find that all the washing-up HAD BEEN DONE while I was asleep.

The only answer mentioned in the answer key is past perfect (in capitals). Since today, I've thought that we use past perfect to clarify the order of actions but if it's clear by itself we don't need one.

I feel, in this sentence the order of actions is obvious, so WAS DONE is also possible. Even more—the past perfect isn't necessary.

Would someone please explain which tense should be used and why?

  • Choosing between simple past and past perfect is tricky for learners - so much so we have the past-vs-past-perfect tag! If you click on that tag, you will see a list of all the questions with that tag. Some of those might be helpful.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 13, 2018 at 13:09

3 Answers 3


You're right, that in this case either may be used.

Your statement " I've thought that we use past perfect to clarify the order of actions but if it's clear by itself we don't need one" is generally correct, but that doesn't mean that we can't use the past perfect in such cases, only that we don't need to.

In your example, had been done sets the "story time" to the point when "I" got the surprise: this is a narrative technique to make the events (specifically the writer's surprise) more immediate to the reader.


It was a lovely surprise to find that all the washing-up was done.

I would say that it is not past perfect. It is simple past with an adjective.

As a native speaker, I understand 'was done' in that context as 'was in a state of having been done'.

For example:

"My work is done" means "My work is complete"

"By the end of the week my work was done" means "By the end of the week my work was complete"

Grammatical explanation

Done can be used as an adjective.

done adjective

Definition of done (Entry 2 of 2)

1 : arrived at or brought to an end

One more question and we're done.

2 : doomed to failure, defeat, or death

3 : gone by : OVER

The day of the circus big top is done.

4 : physically exhausted

5 food : cooked sufficiently

Check to see if the meat is done.

6 : conformable to social convention

not the done thing


For the above reason, adding "whilst I was asleep" makes no sense.

  • The question was about had been done, not about was done.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 5, 2021 at 14:41
  • @Colin Fine - Read the last three lines of the question. Mar 5, 2021 at 14:45
  • I have. Was done was an alternative suggested by the OP. And I find nothing nonsensical about the washing up was done while I was asleep (ie a passive reading).
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 5, 2021 at 14:52
  • 1
    @ Colin Fine - I agree with your last statement, except that it is out of the context of the whole sentence. In context I believe the past perfect is better. Otherwise you could take it to mean that you were surprised while you were asleep. Mar 5, 2021 at 15:07

I think the past perfect is used because "it was a lovely surprise" happened in the past (for example this morning at 10) and the dishes being done happened before that (earlier than 10 o'clock) = past in the past. "Was done" would be more appropriate if you speak about the past from the present: what a lovely surprise (at the present moment), the dishes were done while I was asleep.

  • This is true, but doesn't answer the question. The OP rightly says that we don't always need the past perfect when the temporal relationships are clear anyway.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 5, 2021 at 14:42

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