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Is it more natural to speak in simple past or past perfect when explaining past events to a friend? It seems like Americans use more simple past in everyday life than past perfect. I found this example online:

I had almost completed my essay when my computer suddenly crashed and I noticed that I had forgotten to save the document.

Is it wrong to say the following instead?

I was almost done with my essay when my computer suddenly crashed and I noticed that I forgot to save the document.

Maybe it's just my friends, but I rarely hear them speak in past perfect, so I'm really torn about using past perfect when it isn't necessary.

5

I am an American, and had not noticed this phenomenon. I would have said "I was almost done with my essay when the computer crashed and I found that I had forgotten to save it". So, I decided to check a few N-grams to try to isolate it.

he had decided , he decided (American) enter image description here

he had decided , he decided (British) enter image description here

I had forgotten, I forgot (American) enter image description here

I had forgotten, I forgot (Brithish) enter image description here

she had lost, she lost (American) enter image description here

she had lost, she lost (British) enter image description here

From this data we can see that:

  • Simple past is used more than past perfect in books.
  • The simple past is used slightly less often in British books than American books.
  • It varies widely depending on the verb.

This may depend on the verb in question, but we can expect to read the simple past two to four times as often as the perfect past.

I would assume that spoken English is even more biased towards the simple past than written English.

I would hypothesize that this phenomenon is due at least some of the following factors:

  • For many verbs the "past" is easier or more natural to recall than the "past participle".
  • Using "had" plus the past participle may add two or more syllables compared to the simple past. It is common in spoken English to use contractions and merge words together.
  • A general laziness in speech.
  • 2
    It is commonly said that Americans use the perfect tenses much less than Brits. I think this is due to observer bias; there are some grammatical situations which in AmE are more likely to take simple tenses and in BrE are more likely to take perfect tenses, and these are the cases we notice. So we use the perfect tenses less, but we do use them, and "much less" is too strong a statement. – Peter Shor Apr 18 '13 at 12:21
  • I don't believe the PP and SP myth re AmE and BrE speakers. It's use is not really dialectal, it is situational. – Lambie Jan 27 '18 at 15:50
10

In an answer to a related question, I said The guiding principle should be don't use Past Perfect unless you really have to. But OP's example here is one of those cases where you should use it.

NGrams charting Past Perfect had forgotten against Simple Past forgot tell us nothing except that the latter is more common overall, which is no more relevant than noting that Simple Present forget is more common than Simple Past forgot. Unsurprisingly, since most of us live in the present, not the past.


But note these counts from Google Books for something a bit closer to OP's specific case...

realised I had forgotten (2640)
realised I forgot (184)
(figures for noticed are similarly skewed, but with lower values)

This overwhelming preference is because realised implies an action/mental state that occurred at some specific point in time [in the past]. And since "the thing realised" was an act of forgetting, clearly that must refer to an even earlier time (as soon as you realise it, you're no longer forgetting it).

Consider these two constructions...

1: When they told him he had incurable cancer, John realised he had smoked too many cigarettes.
2: When they told him he had incurable cancer, John realised he smoked too many cigarettes.

...where Past Perfect #1 places the excessive smoking before the realisation. Perhaps John gave up some time before the fateful diagnosis, or perhaps he still smokes and will continue to do so for the limited time he now has left. The choice of tense doesn't really imply anything about that.

But with Simple Past #2, the excessive smoking was still going on when he realised this. Grammatically, there's a strong implication that he will quit the habit, even though semantically we might think that's a bit pointless since it won't cure his cancer.


As pointed out, in OP's exact construction, it's logically impossible for the "forgetting" to continue into the time-frame governed by the "noticing". But as my second pair of examples show, grammatically, that's the implication of using Simple Past. To avoid this "temporal disjunction", OP needs to use Past Perfect here.

  • 1
    +1 So glad you pointed to that apothegm, which I was looking for earlier. It says everything that needs saying (as long as you already know what it means). – StoneyB Apr 22 '13 at 22:06
  • I upvoted because I agree that the answer that uses Ngram data tells us nothing. The past perfect is needed, in this case, for the reasons you stated. However, Google Books... I get about 2,070 results for realised I forgot when I click to the end, I read: Page 24 of about 2,180 results the number has increased, which makes no sense to me. – Mari-Lou A Jul 17 '18 at 20:55
  • Moreover, I read somewhere that the term realise, is being replaced by "realized", so you might want to consider repeating your GBks experiment again. This observation of mine does not detract anything form your answer. It's the best out of the lot. – Mari-Lou A Jul 17 '18 at 20:57
  • @Mari-LouA: You've often taken issue with the accuracy of my "evidence" from GB, and I've often been somewhat dismissive on the grounds that even if the figures aren't entirely accurate, the broad thrust supports whatever point I'm trying to make. But in this specific case my point about the "overwhelming preference" for realised I had forgotten over realised I forgot would have been dead in the water if I'd used the (AmE?) spelling, since GB clams only 9,560 hits for realized I had forgotten, as compared to 11,300 for realized I forgot. – FumbleFingers Jul 18 '18 at 12:00
  • ...which is completely at odds with this NGram. According to that chart, the Simple Past version is still a relatively uncommon alternative (though it is starting to gain some traction). I guess your main point is unarguable though - Google Books / NGrams can't really be trusted (and they often contradict each other anyway). – FumbleFingers Jul 18 '18 at 12:07
-2

Both sentences have here the same meaning, but they do not quite stress the same thing.

As a matter of fact, a sentence using past perfect describes an event that took a long time (as opposed to the simple past, which refers to a single "point" in the timeline, you could imagine that the action described with past perfect is a whole segment of the timeline).

So the first version of your sentence:

I had almost completed…

insists on the fact that completing your essay took a long while, while the other version:

I was almost done…

stresses the fact that you were very close from a fixed point in time, at which your essay would have been completed.

  • 3
    Past perfect has nothing to do with duration. – Daniel Apr 16 '13 at 17:57

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