Usage example in a BBC News story:

What of the late politician's love life? Even admirers used the epithet "womaniser" in regard to him.

However, the Ukrainian model less than half his age (he was 55) who was with him when he was shot on Friday night could say little about the attack.

Anna Durytska, who was unhurt, told Russian media she had not seen the killer, who had struck from behind. All she had seen, she said, was a light-coloured car which quickly drove off. Into the dark.

Could you please explain to me why in this particular case the author opted for a set of past perfect verb tenses instead of sticking with the simple past tense? To me, it sounds like if we changed all the verbs in the example above to simple past tenses, the sentence would still sound equally correct tense-wise. Don't you think so?

Anna Durytska, who was unhurt, told Russian media she didn't see the killer, who struck from behind. All she saw, she said, was a light-coloured car which quickly drove off. Into the dark.

  • 1
    I think you probably can use past simple, however, since "told" is a past tense verb, then everything that happened before (i.e. everything that she told the media about) means the past perfect can be used (to show these events were even more in the past than "told").
    – JMB
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 10:59

4 Answers 4


It would be ok to use the simple past tense in those places.

We can often choose more than one correct verb tense to say something.

When we tell stories about the past, we often use the simple past tense to set the main point in time, to move the story forward, and to relate series of events:

This happened. Then that occurred. Then he said something. Then she did another thing.

We can use the past perfect simple (non-continuous) in your example to give more information. The past perfect simple in this case tells us that:

A started and finished in the past, AND B started and finished in the past, AND A started and finished before B.

In the news story, we can use our knowledge (that people usually talk to reporters after a murder) to determine that Anna's other actions happened (and finished) before she spoke to the media.

We can also easily understand that the writer is looking back into the past from the time of writing. The main point in time that the writer visits, or sees, or communicates about is the point when Anna talked to the Russian media. Relative to that moment in the past, the writer communicates about events which happened before the time that she spoke: There were several events that Anna said happened or didn't happen at an earlier time.

The use of two verb tenses provides an additional way to express that Anna's actions are anchored to a main time period (when she spoke to the media) and a referenced period that occurred prior (her experiences near the time of the murder). In this kind of context, we use the simple past to identify such a main time period, and the past perfect tenses to talk about things that happened before this main time period.

(The perfect is technically an aspect instead of a tense, but that distinction is often considered unimportant and distractingly complex for most of us to understand.) So in the examples using the past perfect simple, we know that Anna didn't see happened before Anna told (the Russian media), and that the killer struck before Anna told the media, and that Anna saw only a car before Anna told the media.

In this case, there is no problem if we use the simple past tense only, as you did in your re-written sentence. It's easy to figure out what the order of the events were.

But in other cases, it would be more useful to use the past perfect to make clear the order of events.

Here is another example of setting a main time period in the simple past, and mentioning something that happened before that time period with a perfect tense:

It was an early June morning in 1995. Helen drove along the narrow country road that led back to her parents' home, where she had spent her childhood.

The perfect tense (aspect) had grown up lets us know that the spending of her childhood happened earlier than the main time period in this "story": The time when she was driving back home in June of 1995.

If I wanted to talk more about Helen's childhood, I could continue using past perfect tenses:

And such a lovely childhood she had spent there among the horses and the trees, and in the meadows and the hills . . . .

The last time she had driven home had been two years earlier, when her beloved father had died.

If I wanted to move the story forward to the next "scene" or "main time period", I would normally use the simple past tense:

She finally reached the house, got out of her car, and ran to the front door where her mother stood ready to give her a hug.


I believe the original example is the most correct and the clearest expression of what occurred. The rewritten version seems confusing as to the time that things occurred; it sounds like it was all happening at the same time.

First example, as a quotation: Anna told the media, "I did not see the killer." This would be changed from a quotation into reported speech like this: Anna told the media that she had not seen the killer.

Second: Anna told the media, "I do not see the killer." This would be changed into: Anna told the media that she did not see the killer.


The past perfect is preferable in this case because you are narrating a story using 'Reported Speech'.


The simple past tense would be better. The news agency is quoting, more or less, what the victim told them. I would think when you are relating events that happened to you to someone else, you wouldn't use the past perfect tense. I did not see the killer. They hit me from behind. I only saw the car as it drove away.

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