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Here's a sentence written in my textbook.

In the past, I had to sit on the floor at most restaurants in Korean until chairs started to catch on a lot more recently.

The situation I had to sit on the floor precedes the situation chairs stared to become popular with the public. So, I think 'had to' should be changed to 'had had to' like following.

In the past, I had had to sit on the floor at most restaurants in Korean until chairs started to catch on a lot more recently.

Or, is it legitimate not to use past perfect tense to avoid sounding like a writter build up a setting? The reason I think this way is past perfect tense can be used to build up a background that can affect the following proposition.

Or, is it common that people use past tense to refer to a situation that had happened before another situation?

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Question:

Until when did you have to sit down on the floor (in the past)?

Answer:

(In the past), I had to sit down on the floor until chairs started to catch on.

You do not need to use the past perfect to tell us which situation came first. Just like you do not need to use the phrase in the past to tell us you are talking about the past. We know this from the simple past had to sit down. The difference is that the redundancy of using in the past is not as bad as using the past perfect when there is no need to. Notice you also do not need to use the adverbial that contains recently to tell is that the second action is more recent.

If a conjunction tells us which action came first, there is no need to use the past perfect if simply narrating past events. So the answer to your last question is yes, it is very common.

If you use had had in this sentence, you will not sound natural.

  • Thank you so much. Then, how about using past perfect to emphasize that what I am going to talk about now is a backgroud? Sometime it is needed to emphasize or say what first happened to narrate a story. If that is the case, past perfect is commonly used colloquially? If not, what is the device that build up background of discourse? – jihoon Feb 17 '15 at 8:04
  • I am not an expert on the past perfect. I recommended to you in another comment some posts by StoneyB. He is the one to listen to when it comes to the perfect aspects. Also you can click on the tags past-perfect and perfect-aspect and read many useful posts. Good posts written a year or two ago are just as valuable today. – user6951 Feb 17 '15 at 12:59

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