I have found these two sentences where past perfect seems to be obligatory. I was just wondering if past simple can work too. Here are the examples:

I had set my alarm before I went to bed, but for some reason it didn't go off in the morning.

Ethan had forgotten to turn off the tap before he ran to answer the door, and so, eventually, the house flooded.

In both sentences the verbs in past perfect are the causes so it is obvious that it comes before. The sequence of events is very clear.

The house flooded because Ethan forgot to turn off the tap before he ran to answer to the door. And the writer complaints the alarm did not go off even though he set it before going to bed.

So in this case can we deduce that past prefect is only used for emphasizing the clause? What is the reason of using it if the sequence of events is clear?

2 Answers 2


Using simple past doesn't change the meaning of what happened, but it does change the focus of the story.

In a normal simple past story, the story itself, as it is happening, is always and only in the simple past. Everything in past perfect is just context from before that moment in the story.

So, take your first sentence as the example. In the original, the action is, "my alarm didn't go off in the morning". There's also the contextual information that they had set it the night before.

However, if you replace the past perfect with simple past, then the action becomes, "I set my alarm before I went to bed, and then in the morning it didn't go off." Setting the alarm is part of the action now, not just context for what happens in the morning.

  • What do you mean by it is the part of the action now ,not just context
    – Yves Lefol
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 6:10
  • @user5577 Do you understand the word "context"?
    – gotube
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 6:14
  • of course I know what context means but I don't understand the difference between being an action and being a context , An action is a part of the context even if the writer choose to express in the past perfect . That is what I think but could you explain why am I wrong ?
    – Yves Lefol
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 6:37
  • @user5577 I'm separating the action and the context. The action is what's actually happening in the story, and it's almost always told in the simple past. Context is other stuff that the writer tells us so we can understand the action better. In this example, "my alarm didn't go off" is the action of the story. Whether the alarm had been set the night before is the context, not the action that's happening in the story.
    – gotube
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 13:53

We can use the past perfect tense for the former action and the simple past tense for the later one.

We can also use the simple past tense for both without change in meaning.

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