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The people had taken shelter under a tree until the rain stopped.

took shelter will be the 1st action

The people took shelter under a tree until the rain had stopped.

rain stop will be the 1st action

My teacher said the 2nd one is correct because it had rained (1st) before they took shelter (2nd) but I still strongly support the 1st one since they should have taken shelter first before waiting for the rain to be stopped.

I would like to hear the professionals' views on this.

  • For me The people had taken shelter until the rain stopped seemed more logical as well, but I knew that language is not always logical, so I looked into this issue once. Here are a few conclusions I made (that haven't been verified properly yet): a) "The people had taken shelter until the rain stopped" is unlikely for native speakers; b) "The people took shelter until the rain had stopped" is perfectly fine because it's about waiting until something has happened (or had happened) c) AmE speakers seem to prefer past simple, so "The people took shelter until the rain stopped" is likely. – Damkerng T. Apr 3 '15 at 9:52
  • b) For my opinion, it isn't fine. If I say "had stopped", means rain stop is the 1st action while taking shelter will be the 2nd action. So, the whole meaning is: The people had waited for the rain stop first. When rain stopped, they then take shelter. – XPMai Apr 4 '15 at 5:18
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    Not really. Here are some real sentences I gathered back then: He waited patiently until I had finished photographing the crime scene. She said you wouldn't want her until she had finished it. I was going to wait until we had finished eating, but my thoughts burst from my mouth: ... On the other hand, I also found these: She had waited in the car, unaware of what the man was doing, until the police stopped them. Still, until the Tailhook Association canceled its convention for this year, the Las Vegas Hilton had agreed to welcome them back. (There are more, but the room is limited.) – Damkerng T. Apr 4 '15 at 10:11
  • Why don't you reply me as answer? – XPMai Apr 4 '15 at 10:13
  • Because, as I said in the first comment, these conclusions of mine haven't been verified properly yet. – Damkerng T. Apr 4 '15 at 10:14
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I think the OP is not only thinking himself but also making us think to know as to which of the two actions happened first. As a good rule of thumb, I have never thought so whenever I used the word "until" as a conjunction in the past. However, I keep it in mind that the "until" is used as a conjunction in two senses as follows:

  • up to the time that

  • before (with the main clause in the negative)

When it's used in the first sense and we are talking about events in the past, it's very common that the main clause (mc) and the subordinate clause (sc) with "until" are both in the simple past or the mc is in the past simple and the sc is in the past perfect. Such a sentence is usually positive. Please look at the following sentences:

*I waited until the doctor came/had come.

*They played until it got/had got dark.

The use of the past perfect in the above sentences in the sc is not because the events happened earlier but because we want to emphasize or accentuate the events in the mc.

The use of the past perfect in the mc to stress the event,though not incorrect, is found seldom. For example, I had waited until the doctor came.

Now we come to the sentence in question:

The people took shelter under a tree until the rain stopped/had stopped. The sentence is 0K in light of the above; there is no doubt about it.

The people had taken shelter under a tree until the rain stopped. The use of the past perfect in the mc, though not common, is grammatically correct.

  • Same goes for conjunctions like "before", "after", etc. too right? – XPMai Apr 12 '15 at 12:59
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    @XPMai, After he filled/had filled the basket, he went to the counter. He arrived at the shop before it opened/had opened. He didn't speak until he heard/had heard all the argument. – Khan Apr 12 '15 at 17:37
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+50

In The English Verb Michael Lewis analyses pairs of sentences which are identical except that the verbs are in different tenses. This is what the OP's question asks us to do.

At the end of the discussion (p42) Lewis states:

Any difference in meaning between the two sentences of a pair is, therefore, not something that we can decide objectively. The differences are based on a choice made by the speaker at the moment the language was used. The importance of this idea is impossible to over-estimate. ... The speaker's understanding of the situuation, intentions and interpretations of the facts are central to the language the speaker uses. (my italics)

This is why arguing over which of a pair of decontextualised sentences is incorrect is often fruitless, because both can be right in the appropriate context.

In this case, the second sentence is more likely in a narrative account of what happened:

The dark skies suddenly opened and the people took shelter under a tree until the rain had stopped. They then continued their journey up the mountain.

The past perfect is not necessary here but serves to place a somewhat greater focus on the fact the rain stopped before the people emerged from under the shelter. Swan in Practical English Usage comments as follows in his entry on until (p594):

Present perfect and past perfect tenses can emphasise the idea of completion:

  • I waited until the rain had stopped.

But the first sentence (The people had taken shelter under a tree until the rain stopped) is perfectly permissible in answer to the question: Why were so many killed in the thunderstorm?

Because the people had taken shelter under a tree until the rain stopped.

In this case, the past perfect tense is used to emphasise that the taking of shelter preceded (and was the cause of) the death by lightning. The point at which the rain stopped (its completion) is irrelevant and given no emphasis by the speaker.

  • I looked at Amazon for that book, The English Verb by Michael Lewis, but there seems to have only been a 1st edition, 1986. I'm somewhat reluctant to get it, as it's 30 years old now. Would you be able to recommend a similar book, but one that is more recent? – F.E. Apr 7 '15 at 8:59
  • @F.E. Michael Lewis is a bit of an oddball, but some ideas very similar to his started cropping up in linguistics and philosophy since he wrote that book (for example, you could have a look at "The Grammatical Ingredients of Counterfactuality" Sabine Iatridou (can't remember the year). EDIT: but, Lewis' ideas are wacky and original enough to be worth a read. – Araucaria Apr 7 '15 at 9:05
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    @F.E. Lewis himself, in his acknowledgments, says "By far the most useful book for classroom use and for teachers seems to me to be Michael Swan's Practical English Usage ... . It is an unfailingly helpful reference" I agree, but Lewis's book is aimed more at teacher's than Swan's. I would like to have this sentence from the concluding chapter of Lewis's book show up as an alert before any new question is accepted: "Nobody can explain individual sentences out of context in a satisfactory and coherent way." – Shoe Apr 7 '15 at 9:08
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    @F.E. Obviously, Huddleston and Pullum's CGEL is the indispensable resource for teachers, and I also really like their introduction to English grammar for students. But this is more of a descriptive account than Swan's pedagogic guide. (Please ignore the embarrassing faulty apostrophe in the last comment. My brain was clearly anticipating Swan's at the moment I typed teacher's!) – Shoe Apr 7 '15 at 9:40
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    @XPMai. The default tense for talking about the past is the past simple. The past perfect is generally only used when the sequence of events might otherwise be unclear. For example: I left when she called her sister: Did the leaving happen at the start or end of the call? It can also be used when the speaker wants to place greater focus or emphasis on one thing being completed before another thing happened: After I did my homework I went to bed (default). After I had done my homework I went to bed (slight additional emphasis on the completion of the homework). – Shoe Apr 7 '15 at 16:36
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I tend to side with you on this one. First sentence sounds better.

But the second sentence doesn't mean that the rain stopped before they took shelter. The "until" overrides the "had stopped" and makes it clear that they took shelter, and then waited for the rain to stop.

But, since the sentence included "until", there is no need to use past perfect for either part. (unless the sentence is part of a longer narrative told from a past frame of reference.)

  • The people took shelter until the rain stopped.
  • The question is by a (photocopied) worksheet but I am just debating the teacher's answer with my answer so think it's worse if I say the question is wrong... – XPMai Apr 3 '15 at 9:14
  • Just a courtesy notification that I've added "under a tree" to the sentences. I missed out that. – XPMai Apr 6 '15 at 10:20
  • @Brian Hitchcock. +1 because that's what grammar says. I agree with you. By the way, The Free Dictionary says you can use the past simple or the past perfect in the subordinate clause after the conjunction "until", without any difference in meaning. However, I prefer the use of the past simple. – Khan Apr 9 '15 at 8:13
  • simple past* typo error, right? – XPMai Apr 12 '15 at 13:00
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    @XPMai, it's not typo. You can say either simple past or past simple. – Khan Apr 12 '15 at 17:06
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The people took shelter under a tree until the rain had stopped.

This is correct. The past perfect tense is commonly used with until; see Damkeng's examples above. The basic rule of the past perfect referring to earlier action does not apply here.

The people had taken shelter under a tree until the rain stopped.

This is incorrect. If you want to refer to this action in the past perfect, say:

The people had taken shelter under a tree until the rain had stopped.

  • Sorry, this part onwards I don't understand what you meant. This is incorrect. If you want to refer to this action in the past perfect, say: .... – XPMai Apr 7 '15 at 15:44
  • "The basic rule of the past perfect referring to earlier action does not apply here." So the earliest action is the people took shelter, subsequently the rain stopped. Unless, I can be imaginative to think further than the given sentence.... – XPMai Apr 7 '15 at 15:46
  • So, if you were writing in the past tense and then you wanted to refer to the people taking shelter until the rain stopped, which occured before what you were writing about in the past tense, you could use the past-perfect form of the sentence. – J. LS Apr 8 '15 at 8:27

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