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Can you guys please help with which verb tense to use when talking about numerous specific events?

In the example below, I'm not quite sure if past perfect really is necessary.

"She sent me a new book as soon as I finished the book."

"She sent me a new book as soon as I had finished the book"

Then in the example below, I'm not sure if it will be incorrect without using past tense.

"Do you remember when my son got sick last Tuesday and I had to go pick him up? That's why I got worried when his teacher called me this morning."

"Do you remember when my son had gotten sick last Tuesday and I had had to go pick him up? That's why I got worried when his teacher called me this morning."

In the example below, I'm not even sure how to change it into past perfect. Maybe it's because it is not necessary at all?

"He said that the moment he first met her, he felt something special and began to keep a diary."

Edit: I don't really understand the answer that was given to me.

Why should I use past perfect at all in my "Do you remember when my son got sick" example? Am I not explaining things in chronological order? I thought I was starting to grasp this past perfect thing, but now I'm even more confused.

Also, Why is it not "He said that the moment he had first met her, he had felt something and had begun to keep a diary"?

Didn't the meeting take place before his saying it? Or is "first met her" modifying what kind of moment it was? Also, didn't the "feeling something" and "beginning to keep a diary" happen simultaneously?

  • You can always rephrase, splitting the phrases and using helpers like "then", "later", "afterwards", "before" etc. Past perfect is a simple way of creating a sequence of two events in the past, but there are other ways to achieve this result. Still, if you replace past perfect with simple past you lose some information - the two events may overlap in time. – SF. Apr 17 '13 at 13:51
  • I can't closevote because of the bounty, but I think this is effectively a duplicate of When is using the past perfect tense not necessary? and Verb tenses when asking a question, both from the same OP. – FumbleFingers Apr 24 '13 at 20:39
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1. The first question is about the tense we should use after "as soon as". In a sentence such as this:

I had left when the phone rang.

you need to use the past perfect in the second clause to show which action came first and which – second. However, when you use “as soon as”, the sequence is clear and it is normally a matter of preference which one to use, so both your examples will be correct. In American English the preference would normally be past simple. The past perfect would emphasize the fact that one action was complete before the other one occurred. (an explanation given in Grammar for Teachers by Andrea DeCapua)

2. In the second pair of examples they are both correct again. It is unnecessary to use past perfect because the time is mentioned and the sequence of events is clear. Also, the actions are described in the order in which they occurred. You can use the past perfect if you want, to emphasize that one was before the other.

3. The third question was about the sentence

He said that the moment he first met her, he felt something special and began to keep a diary.

The actual words the man said must have been:

"The moment I first met her, I felt something special and began to keep a diary."

When you report his words and begin with “He said”, the entire phrase shifts one tense back and becomes:

He said that the moment he had first met her, he had felt something special and had begun to keep a diary.

Although this is the grammatically correct sentence, it is very common that the past simple does not become past perfect in indirect speech. When reporting, native speakers tend to make present tenses past ("I am studying" - "She said she was studying") but very often do not care to make the past tenses perfect, as grammar books always teach us we should.

That is what makes both these sentences correct: "He said that the moment he first met her, he felt something special and began to keep a diary." and “He said that the moment he had first met her, he had felt something special and had begun to keep a diary.” (have a look at the end of this page)

  • So, as long as I use words that establish a clear sequence, past perfect is not necessary? So are these two sentences both correct and mean the same thing? "She had already done it before I could stop her" vs "she did it before I could stop her". – jess Apr 23 '13 at 2:43
  • I would say they do. The emphasis is different but they both mean that she did something and I did not stop her in time. – fluffy Apr 23 '13 at 6:22
  • -1 You don't need to use Past Perfect in the first example. In fact, I'd hazard a guess that most native speakers don't, on average. – FumbleFingers Apr 24 '13 at 15:03
  • @FumbleFingers, you made a good point. I was just trying to illustrate the principle that if it is not clear which action is first and which - second, then you need to use Past Perfect. But you are right, this is not the best example. I will try to think of a better one and correct it. – fluffy Apr 25 '13 at 8:35
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You might want to read Past Perfect; it seems to explain it pretty well.

In the first pair, the second phrase is correct, though I think it would be more natural to say "As soon as I had finished the book she sent me a new book."

In the second pair, I think it should be:

Do you remember when my son had gotten sick last Tuesday and I had to go pick him up? That's why I got worried when his teacher called me this morning.

"Had had to go" may be OK in some phrases, but in past perfect tense it should be "had gone."

And I think that your third example should be:

He said that the moment he first met her, he had felt something special and began to keep a diary.

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    I don't really understand the last sentence. Why is it not "He said that the moment he had first met her"? Didn't the meeting take place before his saying it? Or is "first met her" just explaining what kind of moment it was? – jess Apr 19 '13 at 3:21
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The primary function of the past perfect tense is to talk about the "past before the past". A past perfect sentence creates a chronological order and link between two events in the past. In some cases past simple tense could be used to convey the same information, but past perfect tense should be used as it makes the order of events much more unambiguous and the sentence structure more natural.

In the first example there are two events/actions:

"She sent me a new book as soon as I had finished the book."

"She sent me a new book" is an event in the past. "I had finished the book" is the past perfect portion, and signals that the book was finished prior to the new one being sent. Since the new book was sent in the past, the book was read in the "past before the past". It may also be helpful to visualize this via a timeline, an example of which can be found here.

Now apply these same rules of ordering events to the second example:

"Do you remember when my son got sick last Tuesday and I had to go pick him up? That's why I got worried when his teacher called me this morning."

We can infer that the son got sick prior to having to go to pick him up, and likewise that his teacher called prior to getting worried. So now we change it to past perfect tense to get:

"Do you remember when my son had gotten sick last Tuesday and I had to go pick him up? That's why I got worried when his teacher had called me this morning."

The third example is a little bit different because it uses reported speech (apparently incorrectly, but that is another topic).

"He said that the moment he first met her, he felt something special and began to keep a diary."

However we can still infer the order of events and change to past perfect tense to be more clear. We infer that feeling something special came prior to keeping a diary. Then the sentence changes to:

"He said that the moment he first met her, he had felt something special and began to keep a diary."

To summarize:

  • Past perfect tense links two (or more) events which each occured in the past
  • Past perfect is preferred over past simple for decriptions of two (or more) events in the past

Why should I use past perfect at all in my "Do you remember when my son got sick" example? Am I not explaining things in chronological order? I thought I was starting to grasp this past perfect thing, but now I'm even more confused.

Hopefully this is more clear now, the past perfect is used in this sentence to emphasize that there were two events, which happened in a certain order, both in the past.

Also, Why is it not "He said that the moment he had first met her, he had felt something and had begun to keep a diary"?
Didn't the meeting take place before his saying it? Or is "first met her" modifying what kind of moment it was? Also, didn't the "feeling something" and "beginning to keep a diary" happen simultaneously?

Good questions. The phrase "the moment he first met her" is specifying a time, just the same as "as soon as" and "last Tuesday" did in the first and second examples, it isn't itself an action/event. "Feeling something" and "beginning to keep a diary" do sound like they are happening simultaneously in the original example sentence, even though one is obviously the cause of the other. This further demonstrates how ambiguous using past simple instead of past perfect can be. The entire purpose of the past perfect tense is to have a clear timeline and no ambiguity of what happened first.

I apologize in advance for the wall of text. Hopefully it has enough detail to give you a clear understanding.

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I don't think the second example needed to have the changes to the past perfect. The changes sound unnatural to me. (I am a native American English speaker.) The sequence of events is clear without the changes.

If the sentences are changed in other ways, then you might make changes to show the time differences:

I had to go pick up my son because he had gotten sick.

OR

I had to go pick up my son who had gotten sick.

Maybe you could change the next sentence, too, but I think it sounds like the parent got worried almost at the same time as he received the call:

I got worried because the teacher called me.

But:

I got worried because the teacher had called and left a message for me.

  • Hello and welcome to the site! It's perfectly ok to answer an "old" question, SE is not a quick / short-lived message board, but an attempt to build a permanent knowledge base. What happens if you answer is that the question "pops up" among the "recently active" questions and if your answer is considered useful, you'll get upvoted. So I took the liberty of removing your "sorry for answering an old question" bit and formatted a bit in accordance with how it's usually done here. We can do a roll-back if you don't like it. – Stephie Mar 15 '15 at 15:04
  • Thanks for the welcome and for your editing! I sneaked an example of the use of tenses into my apology, but I appreciate your editing anyway. :o) I hope I will figure out the formatting soon. – mss Mar 16 '15 at 2:07

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