I have no problem using phrases like "it couldn't have happened", but I'm not sure which verb tense is the most correct tense to use in the following phrase.

"It looks like that's what happened last time."

In order to make a comment, should I say

A: "It couldn't have happened, because I had been out of town until that moment."


B: "It couldn't have happened, because I was out of town until that moment."

Is one sentence more correct than the other? I'm not sure how far I need to go back when using "couldn't have".

  • 4
    I "renumbered" your second "B" to a "C", because otherwise it would be a bit tricky for us to say which of your two B's was correct. Now it's easy - C is correct. Apr 29, 2013 at 2:51
  • 1
    I "renumbered" the statements because there is one phrase and two comments - so now "B" is correct" (once the edit passed - assuming it passes) ;)
    – mplungjan
    Apr 29, 2013 at 7:39
  • @FumbleFingers Why is A incorrect? Doesn't it mean that person was out of town for some time until that incident happened. It should mean the same thing as using was.
    – Max
    Apr 29, 2013 at 12:56
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    @Thor: It's not really that A is "incorrect". But there's no reason to use the more complex Past Perfect tense, so most people would follow the general principle of using Simple Past where both are "valid". But the whole utterance strikes me as rather odd, anyway - the difference between being in town, and out of town isn't something I'd normally think of as being distinguished as happening at that moment. That unnecessary "exotic" Past Perfect tense just adds to the "weirdness" of the statement. Apr 29, 2013 at 13:45
  • I keep coming back to this question, which ought to be a really good one; but it keeps flummoxing me because I can't make out the factual relationship between the "It looks like ... " and the A and B responses. Context, context, context! Could you put them in a little story? ... If you can do that, I'll put a bounty on it. Jun 23, 2013 at 20:53

1 Answer 1


Alright, first off a quick summary of the two verb tenses you're asking about.

Past Perfect [had verbed] - This indicates that something happened further in the past than the time I'm referring to. If I was asked "Was that night the first time you drove a car?" I would answer, "No, I had driven once before that." The event I'm referring to (my first time driving) was already in the past when the time already in question (that night) occurred. Past perfect is the correct verb tense in this context.

Past [verbed] - The simple past tense just indicates that something happened before the present. It is used when I am referring to a single event in the past or to multiple concurrent events. For example, "I went to Europe" or "I was in Belgium when they won the World Cup."

I do agree with StoneyB's comment that the question/response you've listed sort of lacks a logical relationship without a story around it. I also agree with FumbleFingers' comment that (again, without context) being out of town "until that moment" seems odd. So, the correct verb tense really depends on what you're trying to say. Presumably it's that you were not in town when this event happened last time. In that case...

How many events in the past are we referring to? Just one. The "last time" this thing happened, during which you happened to be out of town. Therefore the simple past tense is the correct one to use.

"It couldn't have happened, because I was out of town [at] that moment."

If my assumptions to what you were trying to say are incorrect please just edit the question or post a comment to explain that and I'll be happy to edit my answer.

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