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I learned that the past perfect tense is normally used to express a past action that happened before another past action.

For example, "When we arrived the film had started"

The film started before we arrived.

This dictionary says:

You can also use the past perfect tense with until:

I waited until the train had left the station.

I feel it is better to say "I had been waiting until the train left the station" or "By the time the train left the station, I had been waiting for hours"

I don't understand this strange sentence "I waited until the train had left the station."

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    Past perfect is supposed to make things clearer. "I waited until the train had left the station" doesn't say much more than "I waited until the train left the station." Feb 27 at 15:02
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    Why do you do this?. Those are just two different sentences, neither of which is better than the other. Any active verb can take any number of tenses and the meaning is not exactly the same.
    – Lambie
    Feb 27 at 15:04
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    The sentence suggests to me that the speaker stood on the station platform until the train had gone. Maybe they had been expecting to meet someone arriving on that train who had not appeared, so they wanted to be absolutely certain that person wasn't there before leaving the station. Feb 27 at 15:24
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    @YosefBaskin - if I had to wait until the train left the station I could deem my wait to be over the moment the train doors closed and it started to move, but if I had to wait until the train had left the station, my wait was over when the train was no longer in the station (its tail end had passed the end of the platform). Feb 27 at 16:23
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    Tom, it wasn't Lambie who gave you the down-vote. Feb 27 at 16:24

4 Answers 4

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The meaning of your example sentence is:

I began waiting, then the train left the station, then I stopped waiting.

Your own sentences with "had been waiting" don't have the same meaning.

As you correctly mentioned, past perfect is used to refer to an event in the past that happens before another event in the past. That's the case in the original sentence, but it's hard to see because the simple past event is only implied, not directly stated.

With the structure, [ X-ed + "until" + past perfect ], "stop X-ing" is the implied simple past event which happens after the "until" clause. In your example sentence, "stopped waiting" is a simple past event that happens after the train leaves the station.

Here's a somewhat clearer example of the same thing:

I didn't move until the train had left the station.

In this version, it's clearer what the implied simple past action is --move-- but the sentence still does not directly state that I moved.

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  • This is what I want to know. Other answers don't say which action happens which, which confused me.
    – Tom
    Feb 28 at 10:34
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The present-tense form of this is

I'm wating until the train has left the station.

So "has left" gets "shifted backwards" into "had left":

I waited until the train had left the station

If the present tense form was

I'm waiting until the train leaves the station.

then "leaves" gets back-shifted to "left", and we would say

I waited until the train left the station.

The difference in meaning here is very slight: the second suggests that the speaker stopped waiting as soon as the train left the station, whereas in the first version the speaker might have waited a little longer. But in most cases, either version would be OK.

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  • There is no back-shifting. There is simply a simple past tense used. Backshifting is this: "I spoke Turkish when I was younger". "She said she had spoken Turkish, etc."
    – Lambie
    Feb 27 at 18:19
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OP writes "I don't understand this strange sentence":

I waited until the train had left the station.

The perfect expresses on a semantic level the idea of 'action completed' and that idea can be converted semantically to a time-point inasmuch as actions occur in time and their completion serves as a marker. At some point in time, the train's departure from the station is understood to be complete.

The verb wait is continuative, atelic. We can wait until some point-in-time. Thus:

I waited until the train had left the station.

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    I don't agree that "the perfect expresses ... the idea of 'action completed'". The fact that "perfect" and "continuous" can be used separately or together seems to me to disprove the claim. More controversially, I believe that the special semantics of the "perfect" (present relevance) apply only to the present perfect (including the present perfect continuous), and all the other so-called perfect constructions (such as had been, will have been, having been, to have been) are not in fact perfect, but simply past relative to some specified or implied point in time.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 27 at 18:50
  • I don't know what you mean by "can be used separately or together".
    – TimR
    Feb 27 at 19:01
  • I did it. I have done it. I was doing it. I have been doing it. Four combinations.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 27 at 19:02
  • I still don't understand. Those are four different statements. How are they "combinations"?
    – TimR
    Feb 27 at 19:04
  • The first uses neither perfect nor continuous. The second uses perfect. The third uses continuous. The fourth uses perfect and continuous, and certainly doesn't imply completion.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 27 at 21:49
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While all express the fact that you waited, the emphasis on different aspects can make the narrative more vivid or highlight specific meanings for the listener. In my view, these sentences essentially have little difference.

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