Example 1

I've lived here all my life, and I've been through quakes before. But this one felt different — not because of how big it was, but because of all the bad things that happened before.

Example 2

It was 8:30. My brother had arrived 3 hours before.

Why does the first sentence use past simple and the second use past perfect? I thought with "before" it was not obligatory to use past perfect. Is it because, in the first sentence, there is no logical relation between the bad things and the quakes? That is: the bad things did not cause the quakes.

In the second sentence, both events are compared. Is that why past perfect is used?

  • Can you please provide some context about your first example? The last part is not clear without the context. Apr 6, 2014 at 13:40

2 Answers 2


The second sentence describes an event in the past ("it was 8:30") and an earlier event related to that event; at that time (8:30) the fact that "my brother arrived" was already a past event.

The usage of past perfect is a way of expressing the relative times. When you hear a sentence with past perfect you should get a subtle sense of that "already". (having explicit "already" may put more stress on the order of events).

My favorite way of thinking about past perfect is that something was complete (perfect) in a past time; in this case, at 8:30, the fact that "my brother arrived" (he is here) was complete.

It is true that practically everyone would understand the meaning the same way with past simple, and it would not be incorrect. It is common to say "my brother arrived 3 hours earlier".

Past perfect is a device you can use but usually don't have to use (there is no rule requiring you to use it... Well, except for some conditional statements). But when you hear or read someone using it, you should know how to interpret it - there is a rule for that.

  • OK but for the first example the bad things are also completed
    – Yves Lefol
    Jun 9, 2017 at 17:35
  • The source of your examples is not stated, so I can't be sure, but it seems that in the first example it is also possible to use "had happened", if the author wants to convey the "already" feeling (but it seems unlikely that this it the intent). As a learner you should first know how past perfect should be interpreted, and only then practice how/when it should be used. Jun 9, 2017 at 20:29

I thought with before it was not obligatory to use past perfect.

You are right. "My brother arrived 3 hours before" would be perfectly correct. The sentence as written is also perfectly correct. There is no real reason to use one or the other except for consistency (using past simple both times) or, as you mentioned, to enhance the comparison (8:30, the past, versus 3 hours beforehand, further in the past). It is up to the writer to choose which version best conveys their meaning.

  • So I could write It was 8:30.My brother arrived three hours
    – Yves Lefol
    Apr 7, 2014 at 7:53
  • before .Seems strange because I posted the same question on another forum, I was answered no it is not possible?!!!!
    – Yves Lefol
    Apr 7, 2014 at 7:56
  • 1
    @user5577 Some people may insist on one way or another, but I think that's just pedantic. No native English speaker would have trouble understanding either version perfectly. Apr 7, 2014 at 22:52

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