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I have an example sentence that goes like this:

I rang the station, and they told me that the train had been cancelled.

Is there any difference between that sentence and:

I rang the station, and they told me that the train was cancelled.

Furthermore, what difference would the next sentence have with the two above?:

I rang the station, and they told me that the train has been cancelled.

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    There's no real different between Past Perfect and Simple Past in your context. You can only use the third version (Present Perfect has been cancelled) if the fact of it being cancelled is still "current" - which would usually imply that "time of utterance" is before (or at least, not significantly later than) the scheduled departure time. Nov 9, 2023 at 11:46
  • You have two conflicting issues here. The first is the difference between the verb tenses simple past and past continuous. The second is the optional backshifting in reported speech. Which of these are you asking about? If both, your question is actually two questions, and is too broad to answer here.
    – gotube
    Nov 9, 2023 at 21:17
  • "had been cancelled" is a past perfect passive referring to the act of cancelling it; "was cancelled" is a copula + adjective expression in past tense, giving a characteristic of the train (it is not running). They mean the same thing.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 9, 2023 at 22:27

2 Answers 2

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There's no real difference between Past Perfect and Simple Past in OP's context. But see this chart showing that told me what had happened was twice as common as told me what happened before WW2, but the preference has completely reversed now (the shift happened earlier in AmE, but BrE has followed suit). Real-world contexts haven't changed that much; it's just that native Anglophones everywhere increasingly avoid unnecessary use of Perfect verb forms.

We only use OP's third version (Present Perfect has been cancelled) if the fact of the cancellation is still "current" - which would usually imply that "time of utterance" is before (or at least, not significantly later than) the scheduled departure time.

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  • Yes. this is clearer but the AmE thing doesn't work for me. That ngram does not show any context at all. I see no point in using it.
    – Lambie
    Nov 9, 2023 at 20:48
  • It doesn't make any difference what the specific context is, in any individual instance. As I pointed out, Real-world contexts haven't changed that much, so it's obvious the chart is telling us people use Perfect forms less often than they used to, in "the same" contexts as they used to use Perfect forms more often in the past. And if you toggle the corpus betwen AmE and BrE you'll see that the "crossover" point was before 1980 in AmE, but wasn't until almost 2000 for BrE. This shift happened first and strongest in AmE. Nov 10, 2023 at 2:15
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I rang the station, and they told me that the train had been cancelled.

All the past perfect needs is to have another verb in the simple past because that way you know it happened before I rang the station. That sentence is fine and it depends on what you want to say.

I rang the station, and they told me that the train was cancelled. Yes, that's fine.

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