# How to Address Ambiguity in Past-Perfect Clauses with Unclear Temporal Context

UPDATE: The question has been edited to make the compared examples more consistent with each other.

[1] Beverly felt a relief that was similar to the relief she had felt when the bathroom was clean again.

[2] He saw the flickering of doubled vision, but the movements of violence had receded as the orange flecks left the Honored Matre's eyes.

Consider the above examples (1 and 2). These follow a past-perfect matrix clause with a simple-past subordinate clause introduced by the temporal prepositions 'when' and 'as.'

[3] Benjavier opened the door a crack, only to have it shoved open all the way by a stiff arm from Locke, who called up some of the manner he'd used when he'd lectured Don Salvara as a "Midnighter".

[4] Kyoshi's confidence had vanished as she'd struggled with Rangi's injury.

Now consider this second group of examples (3 and 4). These use a past-perfect matrix clause followed by a past-perfect subordinate clause introduced by the prepositions 'when' and 'as.'

In the subordinate clauses of all four of these examples, taken from traditionally published books, the author is referring to a time in the past before the current time of the book, regardless of whether they use the past-perfect 'had' or not.

Having read quite a few threads on this site talking about the use of past perfect, I'm still unsure whether I should follow the structure of the first group of examples (1 and 2) or the second (3 and 4).

It's been said that the past perfect is not required so long as the temporal shift is apparent, either through a temporal adjunct (such as 'the day before' or 'before he left') or implied context. We could argue that the contextual condition has been met in the subordinate clauses of 1 and 2, but I'd like to compare them to my next example (5).

[5] M'Lord had returned when I arrived last night.

This is taken from another published work, and it follows the same grammatical pattern as examples 1 and 2. However, the meaning, as I understand it, can be construed in two different ways. First, the lord returned at the moment when 'I' arrived. This follows the same logic as examples 1 and 2. Second (in my opinion, the most logical interpretation), the lord returned before 'I' arrived.

That said, how can we justify omitting 'had' in examples 1 and 2? Is it a simple case of presumption? Assuming that the reader will follow the writer's logic? There's nothing to say that a reader couldn't interpret example 1 as 'Beverly felt the relief before the bathroom was clean.' Likewise, for example 2, this could be interpreted as 'the movements of violence receded before the orange flecks were leaving the Honored Matre's eyes.'

Compared to the usage of 'before' and 'after,' which I have seen discussed frequently in reference to omitting the past perfect, temporal prepositions such as 'when,' 'while,' and 'as' are far easier to misinterpret.

• I'm not big on terminology, but apparently A matrix clause is a clause that structurally surrounds an embedded clause. The example in the link is The man that the child kicked in the shins winced in pain, where the highlighted element is a "matrix clause". Your first example happens to include the word that, but I can't for the life of me see any similarity between the structure of your sentence and the one in my link. I think you misunderstand what a matrix clause is. Oct 13, 2023 at 14:33
• Native speakers would be unlikely to repeat the Perfect verb form as in your examples #3 and #4. It's not necessary, so most writers (and practically all speakers) would switch to Simple Past after the first Past Perfect. Oct 13, 2023 at 14:38
• Does this answer your question? Canonical Post #2: What is the perfect, and how should I use it? Oct 13, 2023 at 14:39
• Note that your example #5 (M'Lord had returned when I arrived last night) uses Past Perfect to explicitly force when to be interpreted as meaning before, but Simple Past + when would mean exactly the same: M'Lord returned before I arrived last night. It's just that the Simple Past draws more attention to m'Lord's earlier return, where Past Perfect focuses more on the later state of affairs when I arrived. Oct 13, 2023 at 14:53
• @MJAda Your sentence [1] doesn't belong in this list because it has irrealis mood, where the others have realis mood. Irrealis mood uses past perfect in place of simple past to indicate it's unreal, so that example is not comparable to the others. In sentence [1], the meaning is "That old man didn't die when my Duke was born" (simple past). Please replace or remove that sentence so we're comparing apples with apples.
– gotube
Oct 13, 2023 at 17:28

## 1 Answer

ETA: Improved concision based on OP comment:

Though it doesn't dive into the comparisons I have highlighted, the answer I was looking for is conveyed here: Past simple or past perfect in a subordinate clause
-- OP from the comments

From the linked ELL answer:

Once the 'background' anteriority of waiting has been established, the narrator has a choice of constructions for continuing the … narrative.

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
• with perfects, the focus is on the prior events as explanation

When applicable:
Rule: Past perfect shows an action that occurs prior to an action in the simple past (EF: Offers a less succinct description).

If the simple past breaks the rule that informs the appropriate order of occurrence as described, in this rule, then it is necessary to use care when choosing the correct tense.

## Case Wet Boyfriend

The example sentence:

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.

Although it does not follow the if-then structure of the examples in the original question, nevertheless its expression, in the form of a compound sentence, provides a good opportunity to isolate contextual clues that can guide a reader to a writer’s intention. The use of an irregular verb heightens the contrast between using a past perfect phrase and a simple past under the circumstances of analyzing an ordered series.

Establishment of anteriority:

• Apparently, he had been waiting at a bus stop

When introduces a series of subsequent events executed by a car:

• A) had driven straight through a puddle

• B) had splashed him from head to toe

The structure of the sentence dictates that subsequent to the action defined by when, first A then B occurred. Changing the order of A and B requires a change in temporal identifiers to describe the series of events as they occurred in the example.

Apparently, he had been waiting at a bus stop, when a car:

1. had driven straight through a puddle and had splashed him from head to toe.
2. drove straight through a puddle and splashed him from head to toe.
3. had driven straight through a puddle and splashed him from head to toe.
4. drove straight through a puddle and had splashed him from head to toe.

The rule that governs our understanding of the description of a past perfect event, dictates that all events must occur subsequent to the boyfriend waiting at a bus stop.

Example 1: explains the series of events that occurred after the event of the when clause consistently with little or no emphasis on any one event.

Example 2: narrates the latter events of the series using the simple past, which serves to off-set these events with somewhat equal importance over the event of the when clause.

Example 3: This mixed tense sentence aligns with the rule that the past perfect event must express an action that occurs prior to the action in the simple past. Choosing this structure, will allow the reader to interpret the prior events (presented in the past perfect) as context in the service of bringing focus to the event written in the simple past: splashed him from head to toe.

Example 4: This sentence breaks the rule that the past perfect must express an action that occurs prior to the action in the simple past. In this series of events, the drove inappropriately happens before the had splashed event, thus running afoul of the rule. Readers might receive this sentence anywhere in the range from awkward to wrong.

It's been said that the past perfect is not required so long as the temporal shift is apparent, either through a temporal adjunct (such as 'the day before' or 'before he left') or implied context.

Perhaps, it may be easier to conceptualize that the past perfect is only required when the simple past breaks the rules of order of occurrence for the past perfect/simple past structure, as in Example 4. If it is grammatical for the simple past to occupy a place in the construction of a sentence, then that it can be used at any time based on the intention of the writer.

## Case m'Lord

from the Original Question:

This is taken from another published work…the meaning, as I understand it, can be construed in two different ways. First, the lord returned at the moment when 'I' arrived...Second (in my opinion, the most logical interpretation), the lord returned before 'I' arrived.

M'Lord had returned when I arrived last night.

Examine the inverse:

• When I arrived last night, m’Lord had returned.
• When I arrived last night, m’Lord returned.

This inversion removes some of the ambiguity by exposing the nuances of what each sentence actually conveys. Had returned and returned are two distinct concepts when set in opposition to arrived.

1. M’Lord had returned when I arrived last night.
2. M’Lord returned when I arrived last night

Of the two possible interpretations that are listed in the question:

A. the lord returned at the moment when 'I' arrived
B. the lord returned before 'I' arrived

Examining them in isolation shows us that sentence 1 better supports the B interpretation; the A interpretation is more clearly expressed in sentence 2. This example shows that the choice between past perfect/simple past constructions can unexpectedly alter the meaning by a more significant degree based on their relation to each other. In this case, it appears that the connotations of arrived/returned may interfere with a straightforward interpretation of events.

## Case Style

Having read quite a few threads on this site talking about the use of past perfect, I'm still unsure whether I should follow the structure of the first group of examples (1 and 2) or the second (3 and 4).

• (1 and 2) These follow a past perfect matrix clause with a simple-past subordinate clause introduced by the temporal prepositions 'when' and 'as.'
• (3 and 4)These use a past perfect matrix clause followed by a past perfect subordinate clause introduced by the prepositions 'when' and 'as.'

(1 and 2): Might read more dynamic
(3 and 4): Might read more neutral

• To add to your answer, I would like to link to a similar question: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/27082/…. Though it doesn't dive into the comparisons I have highlighted, the answer I was looking for is conveyed here. 'Once the "background" anteriority ... has been established, the narrator has a choice of constructions for continuing the narrative ....' The reason there is no ambiguity in examples 1 and 2 is because anteriority has been clearly established, and the narrator has chosen to continue with past simple. Oct 18, 2023 at 18:58
• I'm returning to this answer to add some knowledge from CGEL (5.4, p.146). Huddleston and Pullum provide a logical outline for the difference between Example 1 and 5. Tr[2] < To[2]/Tr[1] < To[1]. Tr refers to 'referred time,' and they highlight that there are two different focuses for the past perfect: the first on Tr[1] (this is the case in Example 5), the second on Tr[2] (this is the case in Example 1). Effectively Tr[1] is focused on the past tense, while Tr[2] is focused on the past perfect. To answer my own question, context dictates the focus, preventing ambiguity. Nov 18, 2023 at 23:45