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I have a doubt with the following statement

The day before, Gimbels had taken out a full-page newspaper advertisement in the New York Times, announcing the sale of the first ballpoint pens in the United States. Within six hours, Gimbels had sold its entire stock of ten thousand ballpoints at $12.50 each- approximately $130 at today's prices.

As per the past perfect tense definition, When we are talking about the past and want to mention something that happened earlier we use past perfect tense.

As per the given sentence advertise is a incident that happened before sell. Therefore, had taken out a full-page newspaper advertisement is OK. However why we use had sold? Shouldn't it be simple past tense?

3 Answers 3

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Sample sentence:
"The day before, Gimbels had taken out a full-page newspaper advertisement in the New York Times, announcing the sale of the first ballpoint pens in the United States. Within six hours, Gimbels had sold its entire stock of ten thousand ballpoints at $12.50 each- approximately $130 at today's prices".

The past perfect is accurate and correct. Here's why:

The day before [some event occurred (simple past) which we can't see because you have not posted it], Gimbels had taken out etc. = That is completely accurate.

The prior event that is finished is surely in the previous paragraph.

Journalistic writing often uses this type of description.

  • Something happened. Not necessarily in the same sentence or even paragraph.
  • Prior to that, something else had happened.

Here is another example from the NYT (March 17, 2020), that is even more complicated:

"Noah Diaz was in the middle of rewrites for his play “Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally” when the theater company The Playwrights Realm canceled the show’s New York run. Set to open April 3, it would have been Mr. Diaz’s Off Broadway debut.

From New Haven, where he is an M.F.A. candidate at the Yale School of Drama, Mr. Diaz, 26, said he had anticipated the news. The day before, he had watched in surprise as Yale Repertory Theater scrapped the final two shows in its season because of the pandemic — an action that came Wednesday, before the cascade of shutdowns that followed the closure of Broadway on Thursday."

  • past event = the show was cancelled [passive, simple past]
  • before that past event = he had anticipated it.

His anticipation precedes the actual event. The past event is in the previous paragraph.

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You normally use present perfect when talking about something that happened at an unspecified time before some event in the past:

I had already eaten when my friend arrived.

the day before specifies when the advert was taken out, so simple past will suffice:

The day before, Gimbels took out a full-page newspaper advertisement

Moving on to had sold, the use of past perfect makes more sense, because the time in the past is six hours after they started selling the pens, and the pens were sold at some unspecified time before that time in the past.

You might say that the pens were sold within those six hours, but that is not specific enough. Compare these two examples:

They sold the last pen two hours before I arrived - specific time- simple past OK
They had sold the last pen before I arrived - no specific time- use past perfect

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The first sentence uses the past perfect, as you suggest, because it is referring to events before the temporal focus.

But that is true of the second sentence as well. There is no external reason why the temporal focus should be set at the end of the sales, but the use of the past perfect tells us that it is: the sentence is written looking back at the sale, probably to invite the reader to imagine being there at the end when the people were saying with surprise "We've sold out the whole stock!"

The use of the past perfect is nearly always optional: it is a stylistic choice, of whether to position the reader at a later time looking backwards or not. It is natural in the first case, when there is an obvious time to look back from; but not obligatory even there. It is less obviously appropriate in the second case, but it makes the writing more vivid by placing the reader back at the end of the sale.

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