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What sentence is better in the following situation? Imagine that my friend has lost his diary and I'm talking to him. I know that he has found out about the loss and I know when he did it. Then he went home to get his diary.
I've written my thoughts about both versions of sentences in the brackets.

-I went home to take my diary yesterday.
-I don't think it was a nice decision because you had already found out (before you went home) that your diary had been stolen (it had been stolen even before you went home).

or

-I went home to take my diary yesterday.
-I don't think it was a nice decision because you already found out (I'm talking about an exact time) that your diary had been stolen (it had been stolen before you went home and before you found out about the loss as well).

I think, first one is better, but I'm not sure whether it's clear what action happened earlier - the loss or the finding out, because I use Past Perfect for both of them. Is it understandable from the context or I should use other tense?

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(I subsitute smart for nice as more idiomatic.)

  1. It wasn't a smart decision because you had already found out that your diary had been stolen.
  2. It wasn't a smart decision because you already found out that your diary had been stolen.

The time you are talking about—what linguists often call ‘Reference Time’ (RT)—is the time when your friend made the decision. The important thing about his discovery of the theft is that it gave rise to a state of knowledge at RT. This is the standard occasion for using a perfect: in this case, a past perfect, because you are relating the prior event to a state at RT. Version 1 is preferred:

... you had already found out ...

The issue of ‘exact time’ does not arise here, because

  1. No ‘exact time’ is expressed for the discovery, and that's all the grammar knows about. Grammar is like a computer program, irredeemably literal-minded: the fact that you know when it took place is irrelevant.
  2. More importantly, the issue only arises with a present RT. The present perfect is is a present tense and cannot be used with time expressions which exclude the present RT. Those expressions require a simple past.

    You have found out about it yesterday.
    okYou found out about it yesterday.

    But with a past RT, there is no ‘past-in-past’ form which contrasts with the past perfect; the past perfect is used for both prior actions and resulting present states; so explicit references to prior times are acceptable.

    okYou had found out about it the day before.

Your question about sequence with two past perfects is something that mere grammatical rules cannot resolve. Remember: English has only two ‘absolute’ tenses (past and non-past) and two ‘relative’ tenses (past perfect and present perfect) to express the entire range of possible time references. That being the case, tense is not really capable of distinguishing time references more than two deep. Most of the burden of pinning down times is handled a) by specific temporal expressions like ‘yesterday’ and ‘when I got home’, and b) by inference from the knowledge shared by speaker and hearer—context ...

Context, context, context!

... In the case at hand, inference handles everything perfectly adequately. Your friend could hardly have discovered that his diary was stolen before it was in fact stolen; ordinary knowledge of the real world allows him to understand what you mean.


marks a usage as unacceptable
ok marks a usage as acceptable

  • What a brilliant answer! Thank you. I don't want to create another question, so I'll ask here if it's acceptable. What tense is better when somebody says something and you want him to repeat it? 'What did you say?' or 'What have you said?'. I thought Past Simple is fine, but now I'm a little bit confused because of your remark about exact time. – Vlad Stryapko May 11 '14 at 18:40
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    @Smilez The simple past is better; but most people would just say ‘I beg your pardon?’, because ‘What did you say?’ is very abrupt and may be understood as a challenge. – StoneyB May 11 '14 at 19:13
  • Thank you. Sometimes it's hard to understand if sentence is acceptable because of the difference between my native language and English. – Vlad Stryapko May 11 '14 at 20:25

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