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I wrote a sentence like the following one in another site.

"He" as a gender-neutral pronoun had been universally used for centuries before the women's liberation movement in the 1960s.

It was edited by an apparently native English speaker as follows:

"He" as a gender-neutral pronoun was universally used for centuries before the women's liberation movement of the 1960s.

I don't understand why "had been" should be replaced by "was".

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    Either seems OK to me; in fact I would prefer had been if the topic indicates a different condition (using something other than "He") after the 1960s. More context would avoid trying to read into the intent. – user3169 Jan 9 '15 at 1:09
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Which is appropriate depends on the context in which the sentence occurs.

If you have established a 'Reference Time' (RT) in the 1960s—that is, if before this sentence occurs you are talking about the 1960s, and your discourse will return to the 1960s at some point after this sentence—then the past perfect is called for: it describes the state which obtained in English usage at the start of the period you are talking about.

The need for a gender-neutral 3sg pronoun arose about fifty years ago. "He" as a gender-neutral pronoun had been universally used for centuries before the women's liberation movement in the 1960s; but that movement, &c.

But if you are telling a consecutive story—a narrative in which your RT is continually moving forward in time—then the simple past is called for.

When English personal pronouns settled into their current form in the 13th century, there was no perceived need for a distinct gender-neutral term. He was the 'unmarked' term, and it was taken for granted that it might, in a pinch, serve for either gender. Consequently, "he" was universally used as a gender-neutral pronoun for centuries—until the women's liberation movement in the 1960s. At that time, &c

  • Neither was my case. The sentence was near the beginning of my post. – Makoto Kato Jan 9 '15 at 7:21
  • @MakotoKato Well, what was your context? – StoneyB Jan 9 '15 at 12:48
  • Here's the original post: "In this age of Political Correctness, it seems that many people frown upon the use of "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun though it had been universally used for centuries before the women's liberation movement in the 1960s. So what should we refer to the Christian God as: she, it or they to avoid the wrath of such people?" – Makoto Kato Jan 9 '15 at 16:06
  • @MakotoKato I see no reason to 'anchor' the sentence in the 1960s, so I'd go with was there. – StoneyB Jan 9 '15 at 16:36
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The use of "was" is appropriate in the sentence instead of "had been".

No doubt, the use of the past perfect is apparently appropriate here because you use it to refer to an action happened before another action in the past, but it's not correct in the context of this sentence. When you want to refer to an event happened habitually or repeatedly in the past or a fact in the past that is no longer true in the present, you use the simple past, which conveys the sense of "used to".

So we should use "was" in the sentence.

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