None of the delight frothing and fizzing inside Shirley had been apparent while Howard (1) had been in the room. They had merely exchanged the comments proper to sudden death before he (2) had taken himself off to the shower. (The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling)

For my mother tongue, we don’t necessarily require the tense agreements both (1) and (2), says a member of Korean national language institute (국립국어원) - we can, but we usually don’t, because we can understand by contexts. As it were, we don’t backshift the tense of subordinate clauses, and rather we recognize the non-shifts as the tense agreements - but both the expressions don't always deliver the same meaning, commented the same person.
And English seems to recognize kind of same way, I guess, from this sentence: “I should have liked to have met her.” They say on CGEL p.148 that the perfect tense in the infinitive is pleonastic. Probably they would say that the ‘have’ is an excessive word.
What about both (1) and (2)? Can you use simple past for both (1) and (2)?

  • 2
    Yes, both 1 and 2 work with simple past. "while Howard was in the room" and "before he took himself off." Certainly in conversational (American?) English, and likely in written English as well, the simple past would be more likely here.. Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 1:59
  • 1
    I think they work much better with the simple past. Those double past-perfects are like the sound from the golden egg when it's not underwater.
    – TimR
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 3:13
  • Hey @JasonPatterson, why don't you make your comment an answer so Listenever can accept it? Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 18:58

1 Answer 1


Yes, both 1 and 2 work with simple past.

"while Howard was in the room" and "before he took himself off"

This is certainly the case in conversational (American?) English. Simple past is used much more often.

To be clear, either form is grammatical, but the second past perfect is quite formal sounding. It isn't so unusual that anyone would remark on it; it's more the kind of sentence that only an English teacher would actually use in conversation.

Though I don't have evidence to back this up, the same is likely true in written English as well, though to a lesser degree.

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