I am a native English speaker and have been asked which of these is correct and can't give a definitive answer.

  1. We ate dinner after I arrived (2 x simple past verbs)
  2. We ate dinner after I had arrived (past perfect)

  3. We ate dinner when/once I arrived (sounds odd)
  4. We ate dinner when/once I had arrived (also odd)

I thought the first is more commonly used as it is more about timing, although the second is grammatically correct.

Some clarity on this would be helpful.

1 Answer 1


All of your examples seem reasonably correct.

You could argue, perhaps, that this is the kind of situation the perfect tense was made for, and so a "proper" English speaker should use that rather than the simple past ... but isn't language really about how people actually use it, rather than how they should use it? Most native speakers wouldn't even notice one way or the other.

If you feel the need to distinguish one from the other, you might suggest that the correct use of the perfect tenses is somewhat more "elegant". It shows the speaker understands English grammar and chooses their words and phrasing with care.

However, this is the proverbial "lipstick on a pig" if the rest of the sentence isn't similarly sophisticated -- for example, if the speaker uses only rudimentary words, or uses words incorrectly for the context, or uses non-idiomatic expressions, or makes any other mistakes of spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.

My personal advice is to keep things short and simple. It's hard to do wrong if you start with basic building blocks that are grammatically correct and completely idiomatic, which you can then string together to form more complex thoughts.

Long answer short: All are fine, but English learners should use the simple past unless they are sure of their English ability.

  • I thank you for your feedback. However, ESL learners know that two completed events in the past, one happening after the other.. is the Past Perfect Tense. So it makes sense to them to say "We ATE dinner after I HAD ARRIVED". But if two past tense verbs in both clauses is also acceptable, what reason do I give them. It gets tiring telling them that the English language is a hodge podge of other languages and also, when incorrect usuage becomes common, it seems to become acceptable. I am at my wits end.
    – Injasuti
    Jun 12, 2019 at 9:40
  • 2
    @Injasuti ESL learners are frequently taught English rules that are only partially correct, in order to make it easier to be tested by non-native speakers. I've been there, and understand your frustration. The best thing you can tell your more advanced students is the truth -- that at a high level, English is a complicated language and that it's difficult (but not impossible) to learn to talk like a native. At some point they have to abandon the "rules" they've been taught, and instead mimic what they hear native speakers say.
    – Andrew
    Jun 12, 2019 at 12:38
  • Excellent advice, thank you very much.
    – Injasuti
    Jun 13, 2019 at 13:03

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