What is the meaning of below sentence ?

a) I asked if he and my father had been twins.

Does it mean

b) I asked if he and my father were twins.

If Yes , then when to use a) and when b) ?

  • 1
    The past perfect is hardly ever compulsory. Most times it is a stylistic choice, that sets the temporal viewpoint at a time in the past later than the events being referred to. If that viewpoint is already set, or is irrelevant, the simple past will do just as well.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 28, 2018 at 16:50

4 Answers 4


a) I asked if he and my father had been twins.

= I asked, "Were he and my father twins?"

b) I asked if he and my father were twins.

= I asked, "Are he and my father twins?"


If he and/or your father has passed away/ died, use (a).
Else, use (b).

  • 2
    Note for ELLers: "passed away" means "died". Dec 28, 2018 at 16:18
  • thanks, edited! @MichaelHarvey, was afraid of it being in any sense offensive, nvm, thanks! Dec 28, 2018 at 16:19
  • 2
    Death comes to us all. Dec 28, 2018 at 16:23
  • True, but we'd better stop here since this is kinda off-topic. thanks anyway! Dec 28, 2018 at 16:24
  • It is a matter of usage, and therefore on-topic, in a wider sense, surely? Dec 28, 2018 at 16:25

If he and your father "had been" twins, then they are no longer, and the only way that can be is if either is, or both are, dead. The past progressive tense is used about an action or situation that was completed at some point in the past. It seems an unlikely situation - you have to ask if your father has (or had) a twin?

  • Being twins does not require either twin to be alive, “had been” is thus inappropriate under all circumstances.
    – jmoreno
    Dec 29, 2018 at 3:07

I think that the topic is ambiguous. Suppose that "he" were twins with George, and "my father" were twins with Tom. You could answer "they both were twins." But the sentence doesn't have additional context asking if "he" and "my father" were the context of "twins".

Suppose that "he" and "my father" were part of triplets, and that brother is now dead. The person being asked should answer "no" to the twins discussion, right?


You can still use the "were" construction even if one (or indeed both) are dead. Family relationships aren't somehow cancelled.

It sounds clumsy and odd to say "King George VI had been George V's son", you'd just say that he was.

"Had been" implies something else afterwards, like "My uncle had been a Regimental Sergeant-Major for ten years before he was a florist".

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