Consider this sentense:

I liked James. I had met him when I had stopped at the gas station where he had worked.

Someone at an internet forum said:

"But all those wordy past perfect tenses are not necessary. It's obvious that James worked at the gas station at the time of the meeting and that the writer stopped there at the time of the meeting. Two people can't meet unless they are in the same place at the same time!

Once the writer establishes that the meeting itself occurred earlier than the period of time during which he liked James, the other situations surrounding the meeting can be expressed with the simple past. (Besides, looked at stylistically, the repetition of all those had's is very tiring to the reader. The reader understands that the time period of the meeting at the gas station precedes the time of liking James. The reader does not have to be told again and again by reading had, had, had, had, ....) The following is quite enough:

I liked James. I had met him when I stopped at the gas station where he worked."

Do you think this is correct way to say it and why?

  • English speakers use past perfect much less often than some grammar books would lead you to believe. When other cues make it clear that the action is anterior to some viewpoint already in the past, then it is often not used.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 11, 2019 at 21:34

2 Answers 2


I think that grammatically, either form is acceptable. It is a matter of style. I might use two "had"s, but probably not all three. The extra uses of 'had' emphasize the past natue of the interaction, and slow the flow down a bit. If the author wants the reader to linger of this scene, they might be a plus. If it is a bit of background to be breezed over in getting to the key points, omitting the uses of "had" (all but the first) may be better writing.


This sentence can be understood, but it is not a good usage of the perfect. I agree with the criticism expressed in the forum post you cited. All these repetitions of "had" do not seem to contribute anything to the story,

Breaking the story down, here are the facts we are told, explicitly and implicitly:

  • I liked James (at some time in the past)

  • I had met him (before that time; at that time, it was already a past event)

  • The time we met was when I stopped at the gas station and at that time he was working in that gas station (ongoing activity).

English has perfect tenses that can be used to convey time relationships without offsetting time clauses like "when...". In this case, there is an explicit time clause, so thre is no need for the perfect.

Compare it to "I have finished my homework" (as of now, my homework is finished; no time reference to when I did it) and "I finished my homework yesterday" (a past event with an explicit time reference).

A more precise and less cumbersome sentence can be used:

I liked James. I met him before when I stopped at the gas station where he was working.

Alternatively, the past perfect can be used without an explicit time reference.

I liked James. I had met him at the gas station where he was working.

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