Consider the following multiple-choice question:

Monica had dinner at home. She _______ dinner when she _______ home.

(a) ate, came
(b) had eaten, came
(c) had eaten, had come
(d) ate, had come

According to me answer should be (d), since we use past perfect to show that one activity happened earlier before the other activity, and in the given statement Monica first reached home and then she had dinner, therefore, she ate dinner when she had come home. But the correct answer is (a).

  • 1
    Well that comes from the colloquial language. I bet somebody here would definitely comment or answer "past perfect is the correct one, however due to the evolution of the language, people don't really tend to use it(past perfect form) anymore, and hence settle on using simple past tense." Nov 22, 2020 at 10:51

2 Answers 2


I understand your confusion. Your logic is good. However there is a big problem with such questions - they lack context. In English, changing the tense changes the meaning as one would expect. It is therefore usually possible for more than one answer to be correct but have different meanings. In this case there could be contexts that make more than one answer possible. Here is an example:

Suppose there is a court case in progress concerning Monica's murder. Monica's husband is being asked about the events on a particular evening.

Monica's husband is on the witness stand.

Lawyer: Where did Monica eat on the evening in question?

Husband: Monica had dinner at home. She had dinner when she came home.


Later in the trial, the lawyer is summing up.

Lawyer: Members of the jury. We know the following from the testimony of Monica's husband: Monica had dinner at home. She had eaten dinner when she came/had come home. From this we can deduce that ...

So what is the difference? Monica's husband is informing the jury of events that happened in his (simple) past. However the lawyer, in the summing-up, is relating what the husband said. Thus the lawyer is talking about the past within the past. Note that other answers could be possible if we twist the context enough.

This is really subtle. I'm not sure I can explain it better. Perhaps putting the narrative into the simple present tense will help.

Monica has dinner at home. She has dinner when she comes home.

Now put all the verbs (has, has, and comes) into the simple past, producing "had, had, came":

Monica had dinner at home. She had dinner when she came home.

This is a really tough question to answer clearly. Let us see if someone else can do better.

  • But reported speech shall also be for the first sentence. Her husband said she had had dinner if the direct speech was she had dinner
    – Yves Lefol
    Nov 22, 2020 at 15:53
  • I think I know what you are referring to but I'm not sure, as there were lots of sentences. Could you cut and paste the one you mean with some of the surrounding text? That way I can reply to your point. Thanks. Nov 22, 2020 at 18:21
  • the first sentence "Monica had diner at home " reported speech can be "her husband said that Monica had diner at home or he said Monica had had diner at home . But with the first one direct speech could be Monica has diner at home (present). If you choose the second one there is no ambiguity .
    – Yves Lefol
    Nov 22, 2020 at 19:32
  • Your second suggestion, (b) in the question, doesn't work for me. "Have dinner" is an action that happened after "come home". I don't see any reason the backshift "have dinner" but not "come home".
    – Eddie Kal
    Jan 27, 2021 at 1:03

Unfortunately, the multiple-choice isn't a very good question. It's hard to imagine a real context in which anyone would say or write the second sentence, in any of the forms. If Monica ate at home, of course she did it after she got there. The second sentence carries no useful meaning so it's hard to say what form should be used.

If the first sentence didn't exist but you wanted to keep the same meaning, I agree with Dhanishtha Ghosh that (d) is probably grammatical but many speakers would use (a). Even then I think "She ate dinner when she got home" would be far more common in real usage.

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