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Could you please have a look at this paragraph:

Last Friday I arranged to meet my boyfriend at a restaurant. I arrived first and because it was pouring with rain, I went inside. After an hour my boyfriend arrived! His clothes were soaking wet and he was covered in mud. Apparently he had been waiting at a bus stop when a car had driven straight through a puddle and had splashed him from head to toe. The driver had refused to let him on the bus and he had been walking ever since. He couldn't stay at the restaurant soaking wet so we had a take away at home instead.

Now could you explain to me why in the fifth sentence (the one that begins with Apparently) drive and splash are past perfect. I think we should use past simple in both cases because they are in the subordinate clause. Am I wrong?

And another example:

I had been working in the garden for an hour when I heard the phone ring. It was Jamie. He was driving down to London on business. I had gone out in the garden when he left, so he had only been gone an hour. I knew he had some problem.

It's left, not had left. Please explain to me the difference between these two examples.

2 Answers 2

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Now could you explain me why in the fifth sentence (the one that begins with Apparently) drive and splash are past perfect ...

Without a great deal more context why is a matter of conjecture; but we can certainly address how.

You understand, I take it, why the past perfect is employed with waiting: this establishes that the events which the narrator is about to recount occurred prior to RT (Reference Time, the time the narrator is talking about, when the boyfriend arrived) and gave rise to the boyfriend’s state at RT.

  • Note that even this perfect is not obligatory; in conversation, at least, the narrator might cast WAIT in the past progressive without taxing her hearer's comprehension; but the perfect is a conventional and efficient way of laying out the time relationships.

Once the 'background' anteriority of waiting has been established, the narrator has a choice of constructions for continuing the boyfriend’s narrative. She may, as she does in your example, persevere with perfects, maintaining a consistent relationship with the established RT. However, she may also take the time of waiting to be a new, temporary, RT—a sort of sub-RT—and move the narrative forward with simple or progressive pasts until she arrives once more at the original RT.

There is no “rule” to say that one choice is the better than the other. The difference is one of focus:

  • with pasts, the focus is on the prior events as narrative, the boyfriend’s chain of unhappy experiences;
  • with perfects, the focus is on the prior events as explanation, either why the boyfriend is soaked, or the narrator’s hearing the explanation as it is offered.
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  • So I could write that Last Friday I arranged to meet my boyfriend at a restaurant. I arrived first and because it was pouring with rain, I went inside. After an hour my boyfriend arrived! His clothes were soaking wet and he was covered in mud. Apparently he had been waiting at a bus stop when a car drove straight through a puddle and splashed him from head to toe. The driver refused to let him on the bus and he had been walking ever since. He couldn't stay at the restaurant soaking wet so we had a take away at home instead.
    – Yves Lefol
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 5:26
  • @user5577 Pretty much. I would separate the last past from the 'returning' perfect: "...splashed him from head to toe, so the driver refused to let him on the bus. He had been walking ever since..." Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 11:51
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In the first case, there are two clauses conjoined with an 'and', making them logically and grammatically independent of one another (this happened and [then] that happened). The events they describe both happened further in the past than the main narrative and they are therefore both in the past perfect (the past of the past). Plus, the 'apparently' clarifies that we're talking about a narrative within a narrative.

In the second case, the second clause is dependent on the first: there is a main clause and a subordinate clause conjoined to it using 'when'.

Possibly because there's no further "past pluscamperfect" form in English (is there such a thing in any language?) to pull a past perfect back further into the past, the narrator makes a temporary change of time perspective in order clarify the logic behind her reckoning of how long he had been gone: she had (just?) gone into the garden when he left.

Also, in the second sentence there's less of a sense of narrative within narrative than there is explanation of the narrator's reasoning.

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