As a continuation to this question and AlicjaZ's beautifully explained answer, I would like to ask whether there is any difference in meaning between the following sentences?

She was in labour for 3 hours. (simple past)

She had been in labour for 3 hours. (past perfect)

Both sentences use a past tense. In principle, the only difference is that the verb in the latter has a perfect aspect.

However, although the verb in the former has no perfect aspect, the use of "in labour for 3 hours" implies the action has been completed before the moment the baby was born. I think this means both sentences have exactly the same meaning. Is this so? If so, is there any difference in usage? If not, what is the difference in meaning?

  • possible duplicate of When is the past perfect exactly needed? Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 15:46
  • It's basic biology, not grammar, that implies the action has been completed before the moment the baby was born. But both your sentences could be extended with before the obstetrician decided to opt for an emergency caesarean section. Grammar tells us nothing about whether the baby was actually born immediately after that three hours of being in labour. Only the context can clarify whether it was followed by some further period of labour, a birth, or anything else. Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 15:56
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    I would like to argue against closing this question. I think we shouldn't stop people asking any more questions on past perfect use, because there is already a question asking about the general use of past perfect. My question was wrongly asking whether "in labour for 3 hours" could carry the same meaning as the perfect aspect. Alicja and Walter have made me understand that the use of past perfect is driven by the need to link two sentences.
    – Nico
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 21:23
  • If you think you've learnt something by asking the question then I'm not going to argue with that. But I would rather see less of these perennial questions, properly answered. For example, I see no mention on this page of what I would consider to be by far the most significant difference here - the implications for "narrative reference time". Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 23:32

2 Answers 2


One obvious difference between the two sentences would be that phrases starting with words like "... when ..." are easily added to the past perfect version, but less so the simple past version:

"She had been in labour for 3 hours when her husband fainted for the first time."

Another thing is that the past perfect version puts more of an emphasis on the duration, while the simple past just states a fact. By that I mean, this would make sense:

"You can't blame her for yelling at you when you came in. She had been in labour for 20 hours at that point."

(Just making the scenario more realistic.)

Finally, the simple past implies the event/action finished. Obviously, we can use the past perfect to talk about a now-completed action, but with the simple past, the action is completed before the next sentence. I'm not sure how to explain, but compare:

She was in labour for 10 hours. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

Note that here, the labour ends pretty much at the end of the first sentence...

She had been in labour for over 24 hours. They wheeled her off to the operating theatre, where she gave birth by caesarian to a healthy baby boy.

...while here, she's still in labour until the end of the second sentence.

  • I follow the first half of your answer. The second half, about simple past implying completion, is still not clear to me. In the comments to Maulik's answer I suggested a counter-example: "crocodiles lived during the Eocene" doesn't imply crocodiles are now extinct. For instance in "She was in labour for 10 hours. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy." simple past was used because both sentences are not linked, if you linked them: "She had been in labour for 10 hours before she gave birth to a healthy baby boy." then the past perfect is necessary (basically what you argued in the 1st place).
    – Nico
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 14:49
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    @Nico I think the thing about the crocodiles is that that's a description of the state of things in the eocene, not a description of an action taking place then, so it's a different situation altogether. The other difference is that there's no "for" in that sentence, so no implied end of the action/state in the first place - a sentence such as "crocodiles had lived in denial(1) for 10,000 years before alligators came along" would certainly be ok, while "crocodiles had lived during the eocene" (without anything following) would obviously sound wrong. (1) I had to, sorry.
    – Alicja Z
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 20:20
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    @Nico The second part of your comment agrees with my point: the past perfect does go hand-in-hand with sentences that are linked, while the simple past tends to go with self-contained, discrete sentences.
    – Alicja Z
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 20:26

There's always a catch between the simple past and past perfect instances. While both mean the same - that her labor continued for three long hours - there's a subtle difference I see.

When we talk about simple past, the event is actually over and in most cases, it is not linked to the present time when the sentence is spoken or written. On the other hand, if you apply the past perfect, in most cases, it'll have some link/relation/context to the present time when it is spoken/written.

Let me try to build an example on this -

Yeah, I know her story. She has always suffered in her life right from her childhood. She had problem conceiving. Another nail in the coffin was her labor. You know, she was in labor for 3 hours. She is very courageous: all that would not have been possible for the average woman.

She was in labor for 3 hours - matter finished, that period is over. Other than telling the story, the matter has no strong bond with present scenario.

Now read this -

Hey, don't worry. Nothing bad will happen. You have carried it for 9 months and there were no problems. The labor will also go well.
I don't think so. It's hurting like hell.
But didn't you hear that? Mrs. Anderson said what you felt is quite common and it's okay.
Ah, I don't believe that lady.
Why? Mind it! She had been in labour for 3 hours and knows the ins and outs of it! We should trust her.

She had been in labor for 3 hours - the matter is finished but the case is linked.

Again, please note that this is microscopically analyzed and does not tell you the rule of past perfect connecting with present case.

Also, an important note - Here, the period of 3 hours is defined and that's why there's no ambiguity but otherwise, when you see was ...something/where means it happened at least once and on the other hand, had been ...something/where means the process was completed.

I was in New York OVER I had been to New York (-had been shows the process is complete)

A very little difference but an important one I thought I should mention.

  • I think simple past doesn't necessarily implies the link with the present is broken. For example, "crocodiles lived during the Eocene" doesn't imply crocodiles are now extinct. The other point you make about perfect aspect linking to the present is intriguing, I need to think a bit more about the examples you give.
    – Nico
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 12:15
  • @Nico use was and had been in any example. That'll make it closer to the subtle difference I mean. crocodiles *were living during the Ecocene* -now the point is gotten there.
    – Maulik V
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 12:24
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    Tiny, tiny girly nitpick (completely unrelated to grammar): a 3-hour labour would be a blessing... 8 hours is the current average, and upwards of 24 hours is not uncommon.
    – Alicja Z
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 14:07
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    I'm not sure I agree with your analysis, but I've explained my point of view in my own answer to this question. However, I'm not sure "knowing the ins and outs of something" is the best choice of phrase when discussing labour... Unless you made that pun on purpose, of course
    – Alicja Z
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 14:28

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