I've been reading an article about Past Perfect and I've encountered this sentence:

I had learned English before I entered the university

I think that this have this meaning:

I learned English completely (became fluent maybe -_-) and then entered the university. I.e. when I entered the university I alredy knew English perfectly, learned all of it.

But in the article it was translated to my language with the following meaning:

I was in process of learning English before I entered the university.

So my question is: What's the correct translation? Mine or the one that is provided in article?

1 Answer 1


The past perfect indicates an action or state that was completed before another past action or state began.

I had learned English before I entered the university

certainly does NOT mean

I was in the process of learning English before I entered the university.

The past progressive here indicates that the process was incomplete through the time that "I entered the university."

"I had learned" has perfect aspect, which means that the process was complete in SOME sense before "I entered the university."

However, you cannot determine in what sense the process was completed. That depends on context, tone of voice, etc.

I had learned English before I entered the university, but I was not prepared for the nuances that I encountered in my classes in law.

This does not imply perfection. It implies some lesser degree of skill, but it does imply sufficient skill for some (most?) purposes.

English tends not to imply fine distinctions in meaning through tense alone. To imply perfection, say

I had learned to speak English like a native before I entered the university.

EDIT In a comment below, Ronald Sole has pointed out that perfection in English is probably impossible for anybody to achieve; it is almost certain that even Dr. Johnson had an occasional lapse. Mr. Sole also makes gentle fun of my example’s equating native speakers with perfect speakers. That equation is of course wildly contrary to fact, but I was discussing grammar rather than reality.

  • I have upvoted your commendable answer - in spite of the decidedly imperfect English that I so often hear from otherwise well-educated native speakers of the from my wife and I variety. Jul 8, 2021 at 23:20
  • @RonaldSole did you mean that JeffMorrow has imperfect English or what? I've been trying to understand what you wrote but I didn't fully understand the meaning. It's really hard for me to understand so complex sentences. Can you please explain to me? I really wanna comrehend the meaning
    – Coder4Fun
    Jul 9, 2021 at 13:56
  • @Coder4Fun I do not think that Mr. Sole was disparaging my answer. He called it commendable and said he upvoted it. I interpreted the latter part of his statement as being a somewhat subtle joke. First, I think he was saying that, because many native speakers, even well educated ones, make mistakes in English grammar, many native speakers may not conform exactly to what I explained. In other words, my answer is correct, but not everyone speaks correctly. Second, I think he was making a play on words about imperfect English and perfect and imperfect tenses. Jul 9, 2021 at 14:31
  • 1
    Yes, if you wanted to imply that you began studying before, and still were studying when, you entered the university, it would be fully correct to say “I had been learning English before ….” Jul 12, 2021 at 19:18
  • 1
    It is not possible to say in what sense you have “completed” learning in the absence of specification because there are different degrees of learning Emglish. Jul 12, 2021 at 19:20

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