A lot of opinions on the proper use of the past perfect seem quite contradictory. One that's been puzzling me is it's usage in the clauses that incorporate words such as "before" or "after", that clearly mark the chronology of events. Even though that could render the past perfect redundant, many workbooks still advise using it. Why?

I've always done this intuitively, and omitted more complex tense structures when they were not needed. As for now though, I'm not quite sure if I've been right the whole time.

I went there after I finished my classes. (had finished?)

He repaired many cars before he received his mechanic's license. (had repaired?)

I saw a documentary on the Whydah before we visited it in Providence. (had seen?)

We waited until they left. (had left?)

On the other hand, there are cases in which I'd opt for using the past perfect tense.

Francis Drake had worked for the British Navy before he became a pirate, so he exactly knew what to expect from them.

Is there any rule? Or are they mostly interchangable?

  • 1
    The past-perfect in combination with the simple past allows you time-travel in the Deixis Time Machine to a point-in-time in the past that is later than another time in the past. You get to specify the reference time. It's a power you have, not an obligation you have.
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 23:04

1 Answer 1


Past perfect denotes that an event happened at some point before the reference event, past implies that it happens immediately before the reference event.

I saw a documentary on the Whydah before we visited it in Providence.

This implies that you watched the documentary immediately before, or in preparation for, your visit to the location. If you change this to "had seen" you mean that, at some (any) point in time before the visit you watched a documentary. The first version makes it sound like you watched the documentary because you were going to see the place. The second sounds like it was a coincidence, or perhaps that you visited because you had been intrigued by the documentary.

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