Within minutes of receiving the bomb threat, we had evacuated the building.

Could anybody readily tell me the reason why the "past perfect" has been used?

  • 4
    Perfect constructions are used inside simple or progressive contexts to define the relationship between current and previous eventualities. So this cannot be answered without more context--the actual sentences which come before and after this sentence. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 20 '14 at 12:24
  • It's fine now, it looked wrong at the first glance.(Maybe because of the way it was formatted?) – Adil Ali Mar 20 '14 at 14:06
  • @StoneyB I think this sentence doesn't need any more context "within minutes of ..." defines the two eventualities. What confuses me, however, is that the adverbial phrase "within ..." comes before the verb "had evacuated", but I'm not sure how to explain why I feel confused. – Nico Mar 24 '14 at 22:11
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    @Nico The relationship between those two eventualities is clear, but that is what the perfect means - it doesn't tell us what OP asks, which is why it is used - since a simple past would communicate exactly the same relationship. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 24 '14 at 22:31

Past perfect relates two past events. Event 1 happens in the past (i. e. sometime before now). Event 2 happens before event 1. So by the time event 1 happened, event 2 "had" happened.

Let's plug that model into your sentence. It's a little bit obscure, but it's there:

Within minutes of receiving the bomb threat

Event 1 is a point in time several minutes after the bomb threat occurs.

We had evacuated the building

Event 2, the evacuation of the building, occurs sometime between the time of receiving the bomb threat and the point in time specified in event 1.

So, what the speaker is saying is that they got out of the building in a matter of minutes.

A simpler way to say pretty much the same thing is "We evacuated the building within minutes." However, this slightly less emphasizes how quickly they got out of the building. Consider these two sentences:

We got out of the building quickly, within minutes actually.
We got out of the building quickly, so quickly actually that within minutes we had all left.

That might give a bit of insight into the slightly different shade of emphasis.

  • I think the reason why "We evacuated the building within minutes" emphasizes less the speed of the evacuation is not because of the use of the simple past "evacuated", but because "within minutes" is not the head of the sentence. – Nico Mar 24 '14 at 22:44
  • Well, there is that too, and it's a good point. But I'm comparing the two sentences that I wrote, which both could also begin with "within minutes." Even if I do that, I still have the same feeling. – BobRodes Mar 25 '14 at 20:47
  • Just to be clear, you argue that when we compare "Within minutes of receiving the bomb threat, we had evacuated the building" with "Within minutes of receiving the bomb threat, we evacuated the building", the latter emphasises more how quickly the evacuation happened, is that it? – Nico Mar 25 '14 at 21:01
  • The reverse, although I wouldn't characterize myself as arguing. Feel free to disagree with the position with no argument on my part. – BobRodes Mar 25 '14 at 21:19
  • I meant "argue" as in "Give reasons or cite evidence in support of an idea, action, or theory, typically with the aim of persuading others to share one’s view". I'm not convinced yet though (Sometimes I can be such an unbelieving person! :p) – Nico Mar 25 '14 at 21:26

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