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Reading this article I’m quite puzzled as regards the use of had been. For me, the sentence as is makes no sense; it’s kind of no finished idea, as though you expected something to follow, which is why I’d use was instead:

The Saudi ambassador to Indonesia, Mustafa Ibrahim al-Mubarak, said he had been "surprised" to be summoned, but would "check what went wrong".

Please compare the following sentence which comes next in the article:

The Saudi interior ministry said the execution had been delayed for more than 15 years until the youngest of the victim's children was old enough to decide whether or not the family would want to pardon Ms Zainab or demand her execution.

Here the use of had been is perfectly understandable, the action described takes place before another action finished in the past.

  • The Saudi ambassador to Indonesia, Mustafa Ibrahim al-Mubarak, said he had been "surprised" to be summoned, but would "check what went wrong". Isn't there are actions, describing an action takes place before another in the past? – XPMai Apr 18 '15 at 8:02
  • No offense @XPMai, but I see summoned as an adjective not as an action. – Lucian Sava Apr 18 '15 at 8:06
  • summoned is an adjective? No offence, but may I know which dictionary you use? I use both Google Definition and Dictionary.com. – XPMai Apr 18 '15 at 8:09
  • @XPMai, a past participle can function as an adjective. – Lucian Sava Apr 18 '15 at 8:19
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In your first example, the use of had been is to put the events further in the past.

In your second example, had been passivises the sentence. It's a way of removing the agent from the sentence. Consider the following examples.

  • He said she had been to a doctor.
  • He said the doctor had been consulted.
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I'd just like to add that the first sentence is an example of indirect speech. So the situation was this:

The ambassador: "I was suprised to be summoned. I will check what went wrong."

Sometime later, somebody tells us about this event:

The ambassador said he had been 'surprised' to be summoned, but would 'check what went wrong'.

The reporting word said is in the past, so every other verb in the indirect statement has to go one tense further back in the past (as jimsug said). For past simple changing it to past perfect is optional, but it isn't unusual.

  • So, my suggestion the ambassador said he was surprised is not wrong but optionally can use past perfect. – Lucian Sava Apr 18 '15 at 11:27
  • I think so (Longman English Grammar says so), but I would personally opt for past perfect to distinguish from the ambassador saying: I am surprised - which would then be reported as: the ambassador said he was surprised... – Lucky Apr 18 '15 at 11:31

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