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I have an ongoing discussion with my lecturer about "since" and the past tense. We had a German translation from "A song of ice and fire" and had to translate it back to English.

My translation: "He was a fifty-year-old man and, since he was part of the Guards, had seen many young lords come and go."

My lecturer said "was" (i.e. simple past) is not possible but "since he had been part of the Guards."

(The German text is: "... und seitdem er bei den Wächtern war, hatte er schon viele junge Lords kommen und gehen sehen.")

Is my translation wrong? If both are fine, is there any difference in connotation?

I talked to a friend of mine and she found the usage of "had been" rather strange (native speaker of American English).

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"Since" also has the meaning of "because". If you use "since he was", it could mean because he was a part of the Guards, the Guards being his occupation, he worked as a Guard. "Was" doesn't express duration, it just says that at the age of fifty, he was a Guard.

You want to express duration: from the time he started working as a Guard, presumably as a young man, until the time he is fifty, he had seen many young lords. For twenty or thirty years he had seen many young lords.

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  • Thank you for your input! The aspect of duration really makes sense. Is this because the (past) perfect implies a relation between two points in time? Because when thinking about duration, what comes first to my mind is past progressive. But that, of course, doesn't make any sense in this case. I now read my translation and usage of "since" as "because" as well. Thank you very much!! – Lea Jan 16 at 21:08
  • Two points in time in the past, correct. One happened further back in time than the other. Past progressive is used for an action in the past , having a duration, or two things happening at the same time: I was reading and he was working, for example. – anouk Jan 17 at 10:06
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Looking only at the English grammar and not the factual context of the statement (or the original German), both "was" and "had been" seem fine to me.

Using "Had been..." implies that the action (in this case, his being) happened in the past and is completed (is no longer happening at the time of the statement). If you want to stress that he was a guard and is no longer a guard, this construction would do that.

Using "Was" implies action in the past with no definite completion (he was definitely a guard in the past and he may still be a guard at the time of this statement).

This distinction is pretty subtle, and many people would use these constructions interchangeably (especially in modern spoken English).

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  • That's interesting, because he clearly is still a part of the Guards. As an alternative, "has been" would probably express then, that he is still a Guard but I think it wouldn't work in this situation because it's a narrative and present perfect is not possible in narratives (except in direct speech I think). What would you say, when you wanted to express that he had seen many young Lords from the beginning of his time with the Guards up to now where he is still with them? – Lea Jan 16 at 22:15
  • If you want to express his time/duration in the guards, I would use "ever since" instead of "since." "Ever since he was part of the guards..." would describe the statement following it with the context of his entire time in the guards (from the beginning until now). Since alone can have this meaning too, but as others have pointed out, it can also mean "because." Using "ever since" removes that ambiguity. – roms Jan 17 at 16:23
  • I would prefer "ever since he became a guard he had seen many young lords come and go". – anouk Jan 17 at 23:49
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In fact, was can show up in describing a completed action. But even then, there's a distinction.

I was given this authority when the previous chairman departed.

means that the completed (instantaneous) act of granting the authority took place upon or shortly after the departure, whereas

I had been given this authority when the previous chairman departed.

means either

The granting to me of this authority had already taken place by the time of the departure.

or

This authority had already been granted to me at a time before the moment or period that we have been discussing; by the way, that granting took place upon or shortly after the departure.

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  • I'm impressed on how you come up with the most interesting examples!! I think the second sentence using "had been" is for me a perfect example for a situation when the usage of perfect is required. The "granting" took place before the chairman departed. There is one event before another and that's when we need perfect. – Lea Jan 16 at 22:24
  • Aww, shucks :-) – Paul Tanenbaum Jan 17 at 0:26

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