1

I have a question about past tenses in sequence.

I studied that while describing connected past events in sequence:

  • event 1: former event is in past-perfect
  • event 2: latter event is in past-tense

For e.g. 1,

When I reached the platform, the train had already left.

Now, please consider this sentence: (e.g. 2)

Well, I couldn’t find my classroom, so I got to the classroom a bit late and then I had to sing a song in front of the other students! source

In the above sentence, event 1 (reached classroom) is in past-tense and event 2 (sang a song) is in past-perfect tense.

Is the sequence of tenses wrong in this sentence? (Firstly, I reached my classroom and then I sang a song.)

Please help me understand.

  • Your example sentence has the most recent event (past simple reached the platform) first, and the older event (the train had already left) second, just so you know. Your example contradicts the 'rule' you describe. On the other hand, your example is a correct sentence. If you want to know why, ask that question rather than trying to apply the rule to a sentence that, as Andrew Tobiko has explained, isn't even the same sort of thing at all. – SamBC Mar 5 at 16:52
  • @SamBC consider Train and me in one time frame: Firstly, train left the platform and then I reached the platform. – threeA's Mar 6 at 3:49
  • Yes, that is what is described in your example, but your example doesn't match the 'rule' you describe - the former event is described second. You can even do that without using past perfect, just two instances of past simple: "I reached the platform, but before that the train left." It's grammatical and natural, with the sequence of events shown by other words. While using the past perfect you can show it with no extra words: "I reached the platform. The train had left". Clearer with a "but" and/or an "already" added, but meaningful and clear without. – SamBC Mar 6 at 11:58
  • @SamBC got it. I have now numbered the examples (e.g. 1, e.g. 2). You mean example sentence no. 2 doesn't match the rule as described in example sentence no. 1? – threeA's Mar 6 at 13:20
  • For example 1, the most recent event is first in the sentence, and the older event is second. You know what order they happened in because of a couple of factors. The main clause is in past perfect, while the prepositional phrase is in the perfect; this means that, at the time of the events in the prepositional phrase, the events of the main clause were already in the past. This is reinforced by the use of already. There's also the fact the meaning of the sentence only makes sense that way around. – SamBC Mar 6 at 13:46
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I had to sing a song in front of the other students!

It isn't in the past perfect tense, it's also the past simple.

You use have to (here, had to) to say that something is required or necessary (here, your performance in front of the other students was demanded).

I needed to sing a song in front of the other students!

I was forced to sing a song in front of the other students!

In your sentence, both events are mentioned in the past simple. The tense sets the order in which those events happened.

I got to the classroom a bit late [event 1] and then I had to sing a song in front of the other students [event 2]!

  • Yes, only ex. 1 contains a past perfect: had left. – Lambie Mar 6 at 14:34
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The order that verb phrases occur in a sentence is of only minor value in determining the order in which the events they described occurred.

In your first example, the main clause is "the train had already left". That is in the past perfect, or past-in-the-past, meaning it happened earlier than the overall time of the sentence. The prepositional phrase "when I reached the platform" indicates the overall time of the sentence - the point in time at which the speaker reached the platform. In addition, the adverb already indicates that the action of the principal verb was already complete at the time of the prepositional phrase. The sequence of the events is extremely clear - the one mentioned first occurred second.

However, you could swap the two over and the order of events would be exactly the same, as it is the grammar and the adverb that indicate the order:

The train had already left when I arrived at the platform.

The adverb already is redundant, and used for clarity or emphasis. You get the same overall meaning with:

The train had left when I arrived at the platform.

However, you can also get the same order of events with different grammar - though some might be non-standard, it is natural in my experience as a native speaker:

When I arrived at the platform, the train already left.

The order of events is clarified by the adverb. However, things become different if you don't have that adverb:

When I arrived at the platform, the train left.

That would mean the train left at the point of arrival on the platform, thanks to the preposition when.

I arrived at the platform, the train left.

With the lack of preposition, these become grammatically independent clauses, and have more or less the same meaning as having them as two sentences:

I arrived at the platform. The train left.

This does not grammatically tell us the order of events, but the very fact someone would say that might tend to make people think that the person had been unable to board the train, so it left either before or soon after their arrival at the platform. The fact they are said in that order would, in my experience, tend to make people think that the train left while they were on the platform. That could be made clearer by using a preposition to indicate the order of events:

I arrived at the platform, then the train left.

The train left after the person arrived at the platform, but most likely before they could get on it - otherwise they wouldn't be saying it like that.

Your second example has both verbs in the past simple, but the order is likewise indicated with then.

Well, I couldn’t find my classroom, so I got to the classroom a bit late and then I had to sing a song in front of the other students!

The first clause sets a condition, why the rest of it happened, indicated by so. The second says they got to the classroom late, and the third says they were made to sing a song - had having its sense of compulsion, rather than acting as an auxiliary indicating the past perfect. The order of events would be clear without the then because the sentence makes more sense that way, but the then clarifies that it happened after getting to the classroom late.

The order of the clauses can be a sort of tie-breaker in determining the order in which the events described occurred, but grammar, adverbs and prepositions are the sure ways to do so.

0

sequence of tenses in Example 1, which is a very simple example of the use of the past perfect:

  • When I reached the platform, the train had already left.

reached=simple past, had left = past perfect

The reason for this: the train leaves the platform in the past before the person reaches the platform.

On the imaginary timeline of tenses: the "had left" occurs at a point in time earlier than the point in time of "I reached the platform".

timelines of tenses with examples

Example 2: - Well, I couldn’t find my classroom, so I got to the classroom a bit late and then I had to sing a song in front of the other students! source

There is no past perfect there: there are three past tenses: could, got and had

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