The life of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia was especially tragic. She had shown promise as an avant garde dancer but was eventually overcome by mental illness. After multiple episodes of violent and dangerous behavior, Lucia was institutionalized in 1932, at age 25. She would spend the remainder of her life in asylums

I think with past simple the sequence of events would be as clear as with past perfect. I think that the author chose past perfect to express that the promise lasted a long time it is a duration where as was overcome is a specific point of time

  • Don't overthink this one. I don't think it makes even a tiny nuance of difference whether you use Simple Past or Present Perfect here. But as I keep saying, native speakers tend to avoid "unnecessary" use of Perfect forms. So most writers use Simple Past for this context. Dec 16, 2023 at 19:02

1 Answer 1


The critical point is that "her showing promise" had occurred prior to "her being overcome with mental illness".

Where one event takes place before another that is in the past tense - then the past perfect is usually the best choice for the former event. For example:

"We had just finished breakfast when the neighbour knocked on the door" or "We had already been away on holiday before we received an invitation to go to France" or "I had finished my homework when I got a phone call".

Having said that, it can often be idiomatically acceptable not to use the past perfect. Indeed in the example you give, the meaning of the sentence would differ little had the author said:

"She showed promise as an avant garde dancer, but was eventually overcome by mental illness".

But I think it is safe to say that by using the past perfect you do make it quite clear that it was a prior event.

  • I can't for the life of me see why anyone would care about "[making] it quite clear that it was a prior event". The alternative interpretation (that she "showed promise" after being "eventually overcome by mental illness") is just nonsense. Dec 16, 2023 at 19:05
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    @FumbleFingers It is probably a fine distinction, as I point out in my answer. But if I heard "She showed promise...but was eventually overcome by mental illness" it might tend to suggest that the "showing promise" and the "mental illness" were for a time coexistent, before she was finally overcome by it. By saying "She had showed promise...before...", it seems to disconnect the two events and places the former in a more distinctly prior phase".
    – WS2
    Dec 16, 2023 at 21:03

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