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Could someone please explain why don't we use Past Perfect twice in this sentence?

  • She told me that a man in a black mask had come up to her and mugged her just in the middle of the street.

I thought it was supposed to be "had come up" and "had mugged" because both of those actions happened before "she told", as tense coordination suggests.

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    It's an example of ellipsis; the second 'had' which is required before 'mugged' is omitted, but understood (the first 'had' covers both verbs). Alternatively, you could consider 'coming up to someone and mugging them' as one action. Oct 24, 2023 at 18:46

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Both those verbs are in the past perfect.

Let's start with this rewording of the sentence:

...[a man in a black mask had come up to her] and [he had mugged her]...

Here, the conjunction "and" joins two complete clauses with a subject and verb phrase. But rather than repeat the subject, we can leave it out:

...a man in a black mask [had come up to her] and [had mugged her]...

In this version, "and" joins just the two verb phrases. But we're repeating "had", and we can leave the second one out as well:

...a man in a black mask had [come up to her] and [mugged her]...

This is the original version, where "and" joins just the two past participial phrases "come up to her" and "mugged her". That's to say, "mugged" isn't simple past here, but a past participle.

The "had" applies to both "come up" and "mugged", so both verbs are in the past perfect, not simple past.

We can convince ourselves this is true if we replace "mug" with an irregular verb where the past participle form is different from the simple past form.

A man had [come up to her] and [given her a rose].

Since "given" can only be a past participle, we know that "give" is in the past perfect, not simple past.

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  • @Glaadrial How does this not answer the question? The question is about why we don't use past perfect, because that would be wrong, and I explain that in fact this is past perfect, and I explain how we can see it's past perfect. I believe that satisfies the OP's distress that something fishy was going on.
    – gotube
    Oct 26, 2023 at 2:33
  • I think my answer has left the realm of the abstruse and entered into the esoteric. As a new poster, I can't afford the downvotes. Your answer is better.
    – Glaadrial
    Oct 27, 2023 at 2:00
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    @Glaadrial I happen to think my answer is correct, but both of our answers are good and make the site better. Yours is made stronger by the dialogue below it. It'd be a shame to lose it. If you undelete it and tag me again, I'll upvote it for its quality alone, which will counter 5 DVs. ;)
    – gotube
    Oct 27, 2023 at 4:37
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EF: The past perfect refers to a time earlier than before now. It is used to make it clear that one event happened before another in the past. It does not matter which event is mentioned first - the tense makes it clear which one happened first.

In the early stages of working with the past perfect, applying a rule that describes our understanding of temporal events is very useful. The most important thing to remember, however, is that time and tense are two distinct concepts. Tense does not define time; it is a grammatical convention that allows the narrator to describe the time in a story (more about Tense and Time at English Club).

In the example sentence,

  • She told me that a man in a black mask had come up to her and mugged her just in the middle of the street.

there are three separate references of time:

  1. The inferred present of the narrator telling the story
  2. The simple past (relative to the narrator's present) when the narrator was told of the events. She told me
  3. Time before the simple past of number 2 when events A and B occurred.
    A. a man in a black mask had come up to her
    B. and mugged her

Whether event B is interpreted as a perfectly proper past perfect expression where mugged shares the had with come by means of the conjunction (and), or a simple past with an elided (he) mugged to imply indignation toward the violence of the mugging event, is a matter that must be decided by the readers' experience and understanding of what sounds right to them.

Could someone please explain why don't we use Past Perfect twice in this sentence?

One answer, as it is explained elsewhere, is that using the second had would be redundant (or less concise, perhaps) because of how the sentence is constructed: had (come up, mugged).

A second answer that addresses the inference of:

I thought it was supposed to be had come up and had mugged because both of those actions happened before she told, as tense coordination suggests.

Tense is used to express temporal coordination. Number 2, above, is an expression of a distinct time in relation to the time reference of number 3. It functions separately from the subsequent events because the act of telling the narrator, in this example, is logically understood to happen after the time of number 3 (i.e., it is illogical not to understand that telling the story must happen after the events of the story, so additional temporal clues are not necessary to maintain clarity).

As such, all of the tenses of grammar that exist for our narrator in time, number 1, also exist for the time, number 2, when our she tells the narrator about the events.

To simplify this point, instead of presenting a mixed tense for A and B, consider:

  • She had told me that a man in a black mask came up to her and mugged her just in the middle of the street.

The narrator sets the anteriority in the past perfect, and describes the events A and B in the simple past. Logically, it is not normal for the narrator to have been told of the events prior to them happening. When the logic is clear, like it is here, the storyteller has much freedom for creativity. Because the sequence of events are not difficult to follow, experienced readers probably would not have difficulty understanding the timeline.

In this example, the choice of construction, for some, can serve to facilitate the recession of the told action, in favor of bringing the plot action forward to emphasize its relative importance over the exposition. In the original example, the choice is more limited because the mixed tense may not really be mixed depending on who is reading it. In every instance, these subtle variations are tools that writers may employ to guide readers to interpret their meaning in the way they intend. Once the story is in front of the readers, only the readers can decide what the text means to them.

See more about:
ELL answer Past Simple or Past Perfect Perfect
Cambridge Dictionary: Grammar Time and Tense

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    I don't think "mug" is in the simple past at all. Do you think this sentence is correct, natural English: "A man had come up to her and gave her a rose"?
    – gotube
    Oct 25, 2023 at 18:10
  • "A man had come up to her and gave her a rose"? “She was so scared. She had been standing there alone, when a man had come up to her, and…he gave her a rose. It was all a false alarm.” Any problem that can be solved with context is not a problem at all. “A man came up to her and had given her a rose,” is much more problematic.
    – Glaadrial
    Oct 25, 2023 at 19:47
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    That's not the use of simple past in this case of a straight-forward narration. My point was that "mugged" is in the past perfect, not simple past.
    – gotube
    Oct 25, 2023 at 19:49
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    I read your answer. I understand your point. It’s a good one. My point, as stated in my answer, is that as long as a narrator does not break the rules of temporality, there is no further restriction on the use of simple past or past perfect. Please cite your source that supports the position that the rules of grammar apply differently when it is a case of straight-forward narration or otherwise.
    – Glaadrial
    Oct 25, 2023 at 20:17
  • The rules of grammar certainly do not change, and I hope I haven't suggested they do. Further, having simple past in that spot would break temporality. Past perfect allows the presentation of events that happened before the current simple past time in a narrative without breaking the timeline of the story. In this story, the simple past is "tell", so anything that's part of her narrative about the man in a mask will happen before that, and so require past perfect. To use simple past for "mugged" would be to move the narrative time back to before "tell", and break the story's timeline.
    – gotube
    Oct 26, 2023 at 2:27

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