Scarcely had John begun speaking when he was again booed by the audience.

This sentence sounds strange to me, it sounds like John had been booed before and now he was booed again, and during the "booing process", he started his speaking.

That doesn't make sense since it is much more reasonable he first started the talk, and then been booed.

What exactly is this sentence mean? John is somehow disliked by audience and whenever he occurred, the audience booed even he didn't start talking?

(BTW: please let me know if I made any strange usage or grammar incorrect when writing this question)

  • 1
    What is the context? Perhaps John was booed when he came on stage. Or perhaps there is an error in the text. (PS: 'and then was booed' / 'what does this sentence mean? / *whenever he appeared ) – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 27 '14 at 19:38
  • @StoneyB I am afraid there is only one sentence since it is originally a multi-choice problem in the test to test grammar. – CYC Apr 27 '14 at 19:54
  • If there's no context I'm afraid there can be no answer. Sentences without context might mean anything. But we see a lot of bad test questions around here. – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 27 '14 at 20:02


After being selected "correct answer", I encouraged OP to continue asking... this answer is complete except one crucial aspect. OP wants to know if timeline could look like this:

  • T4 Audience boos again
  • T5 John begins to speak

Anwer is "no" but he/she needs to know why. Exmple:

  • "John begun speaking when the clock struck noon."
  • "Scarcely had John begun speaking when the clock struck noon."

I'm too tired to dig into tense/aspect/etc right now. Anyone is free to help me out on this / make suggested edit or comment. I've got to sleep and will review in a day.


Scarcely had John begun speaking when he was again booed by the audience.


  • T1: ???
  • T2: audience boos John (deduced from "T5:again" below)
  • T3: ???
  • T4: John begins to speak
  • T5: audience boos again

SEMANTICS: Statement at T5 indicates that the audience booed John at least once before, such as at T1, T2, or T3. I will put it at "T2" to indicate the prior booing.

LOGICAL ANALYSIS: The statement makes no inference that John had spoken once before. There are all kinds of possibilities (non of which are really "important"):

  • Maybe they booed him for some other reason, like he was on a talent show and road onto the stage with a unicycle honking a horn, juggling some plates that dropped and broke - and maybe they booed him for that.
  • Maybe he spoke before, and they booed him for that.
  • Maybe they booed him as he walked on stage because he was a known speaker unfriendly to the audience's cause.
  • Maybe the audience was given a sign to boo him, as a prank.

CONCLUSION: The only thing known is marked in the timeline.

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  • Is there a possibility that John had first been booed twice(he didn't start trying to speak yet), and then tried to speak but failed? – CYC Apr 27 '14 at 21:56
  • Like the usage of "when" in " I will go to a vacation when summer comes. ? ( summer first came, and then I went to a vacation ) rather than the "when" in "We were eating dinner when Dad came home." (or I just somehow misunderstand the meaning when using "when"?) – CYC Apr 27 '14 at 22:01
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    @CYC Aspect (simple, progressive, perfect) in English is important. In the example sentence, the main clause is in the perfect aspect, and the when-clause is in the simple past. – Damkerng T. Apr 27 '14 at 22:05
  • @CYC I see this is the critical point of your entire question so I want to be sure you absolutely understand this before we conclude this question/answer. My "short answer" is no" not possible. (1) John began running the 100m dash when he heard the shot. (2) Scarcely had John began running the 100m dash when he heard the shot. Scenario #2 is a false start. I'm not sure that's convincing though, since it's just restating the same thing. I encourage you to be bold, and stick with us until we help you get straight on this! – CoolHandLouis Apr 27 '14 at 22:18
  • @CoolHandLouis So if it is "Scarcely/hardly had John XXX when YYY" (or something in the same tone) then it is XXX then YYY, right? (It now sounds Ok to me after reading and reading it repeatedly, I just got the "feeling" of it). But how could we tell the difference between "We were eating when Dad came home" & "John began running the 100m dash when he heard the shot." ? What if it is "John begun speaking when he was booed by the audience." ? first speak or first boo? – CYC Apr 27 '14 at 22:43

Scarcely HAD John begun speaking when...

The use of the word "had" shows that John began speaking prior to the when-clause. This means that John had begun speaking, but he had just barely said anything before the audience booed.

Sometimes, it helps to rearrange sentences:

John had scarcely begun speaking when...

Perhaps you are confused by a similar sentence which is ambiguous in meaning:

John began speaking when the audience booed him again.

This sentence would imply that John started speaking at the same time or immediately after the audience began to boo.

The use of the phrase "he was again booed" tells us that the audience has previously booed John. We do not know why he was booed the previous time, and we do not know how many times he has been booed. We only know that this is, at minimum, the second time John has been booed by the audience.

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