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Here's my context:

I entered the room and I saw a big heap of letters on the desk. One of them had fallen on the floor. I picked up the letter lying on the floor. / I picked up the letter that was lying on the floor and pitched it into the trash can.

Or should it rather be "had been lying on the floor"?

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  • You don't need lying at all. On the floor is enough.
    – Lambie
    Nov 14, 2022 at 17:05
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    Past Perfect had been lying is unlikely in this context for two reasons. Firstly, on purely semantic grounds, since the letter was still on the floor at the time it was referenced (where "had been" implies the letter might have been relocated somewhere else between lying on the floor and being picked up). Secondly (but arguably more importantly) we don't generally use Past Perfect in contexts where Simple Past is an acceptable alternative. Many non-native speakers overuse Past Perfect because it's easy to explain where it can be used (not the same as where it must be used). Nov 14, 2022 at 17:07
  • Do you want to make your sentence correct, or do you want to know whether "lying" and "that was lying" are grammatically equivalent?
    – gotube
    Nov 14, 2022 at 17:09
  • @FumbleFingers I thought the letter was no longer on the floor when I referenced it, as the first thing I mentioned was picking the letter up.
    – Let
    Nov 14, 2022 at 21:17
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    @Let I meant "lying" and "that was lying" are equivalent in your example sentence. FF is correct on both points. I would add to their "semantic grounds" point that context would make it unlikely for someone to misinterpret it as if "the letter might have been relocated somewhere else", but yes, it could have that meaning.
    – gotube
    Nov 15, 2022 at 18:41

1 Answer 1

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All versions are possible. However brevity is nearly always an advantage, so you could say

I picked it up and threw it in the trash can.

You have already established that there was only one letter lying on the floor, so you don't need to repeat the information.

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  • You haven't explicitly addressed OP's actual question (should it be Simple Past or Past Perfect?). But I'll upvote this simply because brevity is nearly always an advantage in this context pretty much amounts to use the simpler verb form. Nov 14, 2022 at 17:10
  • @FumbleFingers In my defence the OP never actually mentioned any particular verb tense. As an old engineer I just read it as a simple request, "What is the best way of saying this". But I take your point. Nov 14, 2022 at 17:19
  • Not much of a defence, given the question highlights [that was] lying in cited text, and asks should it rather be had been lying. But I've just realised that OP is implicitly asking which of plain adjectival lying and the finite verb clause that was lying should be preferred. In general I'm with you as regards favouring brevity, but I'm not necessarily convinced in that exact case. Explicitly "particularising" the letter with that was seems to me to make it stand out as more noticeable (both to the reader and the narrator), which may be stylistically better). Nov 14, 2022 at 17:32
  • @PeterJennings Perhaps my sentences are a bit stilted, and thanks for pointing that out, but I'm rather more interested in whether I should have used "had been" in the context I provided.
    – Let
    Nov 14, 2022 at 21:24

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