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What is the best way to say the sentence:

I tried to recollect some grammar rules that I had learned before.

or I should say:

I tried to recollect some grammar rules that I learned before?

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IMHO, there's no difference in meaning, so it doesn't matter which you choose. Colloquially, I'd probably use “remember” instead of “recollect” and contract “I had” to “I'd”, but apart from that, either of them are perfectly acceptable.

  • Agreed, but I'd probably find "... that I used to know" or "... that I once knew" more natural than either of the variations using learned – toandfro Apr 5 '14 at 0:28
  • @toandfro Yes, I think your suggestions are more idiomatic in most contexts. – Emmet Apr 5 '14 at 1:47
  • Recollect is fine. It means bringing back a piece of knowledge from your memory. – Maulik V Apr 5 '14 at 5:28
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    @MaulikV: I know what “recollect” means. The issue is not one of correctness, but idiomaticity. A native speaker, such as myself, is far more likely to say “I remember” than “I recollect” in day-to-day colloquial speech; hence “Colloquially, I'd probably use...” – Emmet Apr 5 '14 at 21:24
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The tenses of past and past perfect always confuses people. And I was/(am?) one of them. But after reading a few books, it's getting a bit clearer.

As far as conveying the message is concerned, they don't make major difference. Both means the same that you tried to recollect grammar rules that once you learned from somewhere.

Now the subtlety -

We use past perfect that further goes back in the past what we call early past. It just gives the flair of something that happened a little long back than the past. Check out the illustration I used here.

So, in your case, if you use ...had learned, it'll be a bit more past (early past) as compared to learned which'll give a little flair of something happened recently (though past). What's a bit tricky here is before which may mean recent past or early past both.

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It is easier to understand the past perfect tense if you think of it as an earlier past tense. Earlier past events or situations are indicated by the past perfect tense. The past simple tense and the past perfect tense are often used in the same sentence. Example:

"Several senior employees had left the company by the time the new manager arrived."

Past perfect tense: is used to describe an action of more earlier time than simple past

Simple past is used to talk about an action If we think of it as recently happened(though past).

I tried to recollect some grammar rules that I had learned before.

( You are stressing that you had learned them a long ago/more earlier)

I tried to recollect some grammar rules that I learned before?

(you are stressing that you learned them recently though in past)

I hope it helps!

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