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I am trying to understand better the correct way to use the past perfect continuous tense. In particular, what is the difference between:

  1. Before the party, he had been telling everyone how happy he was.
  2. Before the party, he had been telling everyone how happy he had been.

I believe both are grammatically correct but mean different things.

I think 2. means that 'he' had been telling everyone how happy he had been up to some point before the party (and maybe he was not happy right before the party). Am I correct?

  • This question might require a more complicated answer than it might appear at first. I hope you'll give people at least a day or two to answer, comment, and vote, as suggested here. – Ben Kovitz Oct 26 at 20:36
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In OP's first version, he was happy at time of speaking (the time when he was telling people about being happy).

In the second version, he was telling them about having been happy at some earlier time.

  • So the short answer to "Am I correct?" is yes. – Peter Jennings Oct 27 at 0:27
  • I never read past OP's two examples. To my mind, the best "short answer" is Here's how these tenses work in general. You can work out for yourself how this applies to your specific case. But yeah - yes. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 27 at 12:33
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Without additional context, there is no way to tell if there is a difference in meaning.

In these two stories, the sentences mean exactly the same thing:

I met George in 1961 when we worked with Liz and Joanne as caterers. While we were getting ready for a party one night, George told us about his time serving as a soldier in WWII. Before the party, he had been telling everyone how happy he was. But after the party, he described his wartime service as if it had been nothing but torture and humiliation.

I met George in 1961 when we worked with Liz and Joanne as caterers. While we were getting ready for a party one night, George told us about his time serving as a soldier in WWII. Before the party, he had been telling everyone how happy he had been. But after the party, he described his wartime service as if it had been nothing but torture and humiliation.

In these stories (really, the same story), the time of "was" and "had been" is exactly the same: George's time of service in WWII. Once a previous time is established, it's not necessary to keep using the past perfect; switching to the simple past is fine. (See "FumbleFingers' Perfect Truism".) But in this story, which is told entirely in the past tense, there are two past time periods that "was" could refer to: the time of George's WWII service and the time before the party. Saying had been helps clarify that the relevant time is the older time: his WWII service. In this case, the past perfect is optional, not mandatory.

George had a big smile on his face when he arrived at the banquet hall. Before the party, he had been telling everyone how happy he was. But during the party, Susan danced with Mel—and kept dancing with him and dancing with him, and never danced with George nor even spoke to him. By the end of the party, George was no longer smiling.

In this story, it would not make sense to say "…how happy he had been." The time when George was happy was the time just before the party. The past perfect tells the listener that you are referring to a time before the time of the simple past tense. If there aren't two separate past times to contrast, or a hypothetical time to contrast with a real time, then the past perfect has nothing to "point to".

Notice, by the way, that to make the "had been" in "Before the party, he had been telling everyone…" make sense, I had to add something later in the story to explain why I didn't just use the simple past. The past perfect tense tells the listener to look for some sort of contrast between the "had been" time and some other time. That contrast must somehow matter to the story or the listener will likely be confused.

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    I think 'George told us about his time serving as a soldier in WWII. Before the party, he had been telling everyone how happy he was.' is a little ambiguous. Strictly speaking, shouldn't this mean he was telling people how happy he was at the time before the party (not his time in the army)? – Noppawee Apichonpongpan Oct 27 at 3:57
  • @NoppaweeApichonpongpan It is a little ambiguous. But no one would be confused. The context makes the relevant time clear. Usually once a "past past" time has been established, we usually don't keep using the past perfect; the simple past is good enough to refer to it. The past perfect is usually there to indicate a contrast: from what otherwise would have been expected, or from some other contrasting time in the context. To illustrate: in both stories, it would have been fine to say "Before the party, George was telling us how happy he was." – Ben Kovitz Oct 27 at 4:30
  • @NoppaweeApichonpongpan The past perfect is often optional; see this answer for some more info. – Ben Kovitz Oct 27 at 4:31

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