These two sentences come from a passage about Nightingale.

1.Long before her death in 1910,she had seen nursing become a well-established profession.
2.Almost single-handedly she had helped to bring about proper treatment of the sick and injured.

I feel using past perfect is more natural in these two sentences than using past simple,but I don't exactly know why.Please tell me why. Or can I perceive that the ”had done”here is the past tense of ”have done”,which used to emphasize the action last for some time(though I know auxiliary verbs havo no tense)

  • Does sentence 2 come immediately after (or very close to) sentence 1? If so, that might "justify" repeating the Past Perfect form (because the "narrative focus" is still her death in 1910, which is already in the past). But it's only a stylistic choice even then, and unless the writer is being paid by the word, there's probably no good reason for using it anyway. Nov 29, 2022 at 17:48
  • The reason you think Past Perfect is more "natural" is probably just that you found it easy to understand the grammatical rule involved, so you find it "satisfying" to be able to confidently apply the rule knowing that you're not "wrong". Opinions will differ, but I don't think most native speakers would say Past Perfect is "more natural" than Simple Past in either of the examples. Nov 29, 2022 at 17:54
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    @FumbleFingers - The first sentence (and presumably the second also) is written from the perspective of the time of Florence Nightingale's death, when her nursing activities were decades back in the past. Nov 29, 2022 at 17:57
  • @KateBunting: That's what I said (or at least meant to say). But we don't have the full context, which is why I asked for more detail above. I'm sure it would be easy to justify both cited instances of Past Perfect even if the two sentences aren't consecutive, but it gets a bit more awkward if they're in separate paragraphs, with nothing in the second paragraph (re-)establishing "her death in 1910" as the current narrative reference time. Nov 29, 2022 at 18:03

1 Answer 1


Past Perfect in the first example is fine (but completely unnecessary - I certainly don't think it's "better" than Simple Past ...she saw nursing become...).

OP's second example might be okay, but not as a completely isolated utterance. Past Perfect is only valid in contexts where it refers to a time before some other time in the past that's clearly referenced by surrounding text.

In the first example, she saw something before her death, which is itself in the past. There's no such context for the second utterance. But even if there was, you wouldn't necessarily want to use Past Perfect.

Note that by definition, then identifies a point in past time, so Past Perfect is probably always "acceptable" in any sentence that starts with Before then, he [was | had been]... But as this chart shows, native Anglophones are more likely to choose Simple Past anyway...

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Many learners over-use Past Perfect because they deliberately look out for contexts where they're able to use it (and the "rule" is so simple it's easy to identify acceptable contexts). Native speakers don't consciously think about such things much anyway, but if learners want to sound more like native speakers they should restrict Past Perfect to contexts where it's needed (use it when you must, not when you can).

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