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I have never had this problem before. But after seeing some questions posted on ELU, I started to doubt. I have been through links1, pages of grammar books2, a lot of questions3 posted here and ELU. I now still can't seem to understand how the past perfect is exactly used. The references sometimes even contradict each other.

What I had understood so far was

The past perfect is not necessary if we are not 'going back' to the earlier past, and simply moving from one event to another.

but I then saw a lot of other 'rules' including

If the sequence is clear, the past perfect is not needed.

which is slightly different, less 'narrow' and can be applied in more situations than the first ruleA, and

The past perfect is optional only when talking about an action at a specific time.

This is confusing. Can anyone here clarify things out please?


A For example, for

Doing the survey [completed] -> Showing the result

We showed the result of the survey we did.

If the second rule is applied, the sentence above is fine (the sequence is clear), but not if the first rule since we are not moving from any event to the next and possibly even going back.


1 English Pages and English Grammar Secrets

2 Practical English Usage (2005) by Michael Swan, Collins Cobuild Student's Grammar (1991). Upper-Intermediate Cutting Edge.

3 including Is it possible to be grammatically correct without using past perfect?, When is using the past perfect tense not necessary?, Past vs Past Perfect, Past Perfect sentences with “before” etc.

  • That example ("We showed the result of the survey we did.") is understandable, but not truly correct. The "showed" part happened at a time affected by the result of the survey, so the grammatically more precise version is "We showed the result of the survey we had done.". Unfortunately, MANY English speakers speak and write without using the Perfect tenses properly (as with conditionals, personal pronouns, etc.). – Epanoui Apr 10 '17 at 19:27
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The truth is that there are many situations and sentences which allow for either the past perfect tense or the past simple tense, with very little change to the sentence. The key difference between the past perfect and past simple tenses is the explicit order of two (or more) events in the past. There are of course many nuances in usage that make this a fairly complex topic, which I can only partly cover here. First, here is a brief overview of some of the relevant usages and rules of past simple and past perfect:

Past Simple

  • A completed action or condition in the past.
  • Must have a time reference, but this may be implied.
  • May be used for a sequence of multiple events, but only for chronological order or explicit times.

The third point is where the past simple tense overlaps with the past perfect tense, and is what I will be focusing on.

Simple tenses are often represented as a single dot on a timeline, such as the one below. In the case of past simple, this represents that the event is completed entirely in the past. If past simple is used to list multiple events, then we represent it with multiple unconnected dots in the past, arranged in chronological order.

Simple Tenses Timeline

e.g. I ate breakfast this morning and then my brother arrived.

Past Perfect

  • Two (or more) completed linked actions or conditions in the past.
  • Tense is formed by linking a past perfect clause (first event) with a past simple clause (second event).
  • The two events have a specified order, so chronological order and explicit times are uncessary.

    Perfect tenses are often represented by two dots with a connecting "bridge" on the timeline. This represents both the order (past perfect clause = left dot; past simple clause = right dot) and linking of the two events. Perfect Tenses Timeline

    e.g. I had already eaten breakfast when my brother arrived.

    Note: I find that timelines such as this often help my students understand tense usage better. This particular timeline is one I use often and is from this site.


    The past perfect is not necessary if we are not 'going back' to the earlier past, and simply moving from one event to another.

    This is correct. Past simple can be used to list multiple events in the past, but they should always be in order of occurrence, from longest ago to most recent (or have some other way of explicitly stating the order of events).

    Yesterday I went to work, and then did some shopping.

    If we use the past perfect tense instead, then we have more flexibility in the sentence structure while still being grammatically correct.

    I had gone to work yesterday before I did some shopping.

    or

    I did some shopping yesterday after I had gone to work.

    You can see that when using the past perfect tense we can list events in whichever order we prefer, rather than being restricted to chronological order.


    If the sequence is clear, the past perfect is not needed.

    Again, this is correct. However, there are nuances here. For the sequence to be "clear" you must either list events in chronological order as I mentioned before, or explicitly state the order or time in the sentence. This is often ignored by native speakers because the order of events can usually be inferred from the sentence without it being explicitly stated. In fact your example sentence shows this phenomena. I will again denote longest ago and most recent.

    We showed the result of the survey we did.

    We can in this case correctly infer that the survey was completed before the results were shown, it is simple logic. However, if you wish to be more clear (and grammatically correct) then it is better to write it in the past perfect tense.

    We showed the result of the survey we had done.

    I recommend my students to always use explicit ordering of events for the sake of clarity, so that the reader/listener does not need to use logic to deduce the order. Most prefer to do this by using the past perfect tense, or chronological order of events in the past simple tense.


    The past perfect is optional [i.e. may be replaced by past simple] only when talking about an action at a specific time.

    This "rule" is a combination of the usage rules for past simple and past perfect. As I mentioned before, one of the rules of past simple is that it must include a time, which can be either implied or specified. However, when the past simple is used to replace the past perfect, more information (i.e. a specific time) is needed to provide the same information to the reader/listener that the past perfect tense would have given.

    • 2
      To provide more reasons on the latter doubt, I have also once seen something like The murderer was arrested after the manager was killed in the answer key of a past tense exercise of a Macmillan student book. – Fantasier May 14 '13 at 10:33
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      'I did some shopping yesterday after work.' would surely be correct, because what comes after after here is not a clause. What I do doubt is if 'I did some shopping yesterday after I went to work.' is correct. And if it is, that will probably be a contradiction to what you have said before, the sentence is not in order of occurrence. – Fantasier May 14 '13 at 14:12
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      Remember I said that chronological order OR explicit times are needed for past simple, 'after' specifies the order of events explicitly, so it would be valid. The sentence 'I did some shopping yesterday after I went to work.' is grammatically correct, but it is awkward and unlikely to be used by a native speaker. – Walter May 14 '13 at 17:51
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      Yes, many sentences can be written in non-chronological order with the past simple tense. The 'rules' I presented are for English learners to get a handle on best usage for the past simple and past perfect, the goal being to allow students to have guidelines for creating natural sounding sentences. These 'rules' are not meant to be comprehensive, and are mainly used for students in the pre-intermediate to upper-intermediate levels. Students at the advanced level and higher should have enough background to have an intuition of what is 'natural' and no longer need more restrictive rules. – Walter May 15 '13 at 7:57
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      I wonder if you could you have a look at this answer to a similar question. This answer argues as you do here that simple past implies the action has been completed. I have come up with a counter-example: "crocodiles lived during the Eocene" doesn't imply crocodiles are now extinct. The way I understand the simple past tense at the moment is that it simply states an action took place in the past, but it doesn't say anything else, whether is continuous or was completed or not. – Nico Apr 3 '14 at 16:58
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    I recommend keeping three basic uses of the Present Perfect in mind:

    1. Life Experience
    2. Change in Situation (in which the change is relevant to the present)
    3. Up to Now

    Examples:

    1. Life Experience (sometimes used with "ever" and "never")

    Have you ever been to Pluto?

    No, but I've been to the toilet.

    1. Change in Situation (sometimes used with "just" and "already")

    Call a doctor! I've just cut off my ears!

    Don't call the doctor. I've already sewn his ears back on.

    Note that this doesn't have to be a fast change or a recent change. We can use it like this:

    The Earth is a crazy place because life has evolved here.

    The important idea is that a change has led to the present situation, like something casting a shadow.

    1. Up to Now (sometimes used with "yet")

    You've had that hat on for five days, but you still haven't put on your pants.

    Have you spray painted some pants onto him yet?

    You can use two or three of these together, too.

    It's his first day of school and he hasn't learned to speak yet, so the teachers are disappointed.

    The above example talks about Life Experience, Up to Now, and even a Change in Situation.


    Other uses of Perfect tenses are generally used for the same reasons.

    For example, here are examples related to the ones above, for the same three uses (Life Experience, Change in Situation, and Up to Now):

    When you went to Pluto, had you ever been there before? Or had you only been to the toilet?

    (For this Change in Situation example, I'll use Reported Speech / Indirect Speech.)

    Marge told me to call a doctor, because she'd just cut her ears off. But Hector told me not to call the doctor, because he'd already sewn her hears back on.

    Hector is really amazing.

    Let me also address the Earth example:

    The Earth was a really crazy place before Ming destroyed it, because life had evolved there.

    Last, but not least:

    Charles had worn that very tall hat for five days and hadn't put on his pants. Had Susie spray painted pants onto him yet? No, she hadn't, but she had been thinking about it...

    This leads into one last point I'll address in brief (because it's a larger topic), which is adding in the Continuous tense, the "-ing" tense. This means that we use a form of be plus the Present Participle (the "-ing" form).

    If we use a Perfect Continuous tense, we use "has/have been" + VERBing.

    If you have been paying attention, you may now be interested to know how this is different.

    In general, the Continuous aspect indicates that a verb is active now and not complete within the time we're describing. We may use it to emphasize that the verb is temporary, to indicate that it's something in progress (from one state to another), to convey repetition, and/or to emphasize activity.

    Rather than give more rules, I will leave you with a few examples with some context suggesting what additional information the Continuous aspect conveys. This is not absolutely complete, but is plenty to be useful.

    Last year my friend invited me to move to Mars with her. I'd never lived on Mars before, so I'd been hearing good things on the news about it and I decided to give it a try. I'd lived on Earth all my life, and for two weeks I had been living with my parents, so I was ready to move. By the time we finally reached Mars, we'd been flying for two weeks. (Years ago it took much longer to reach Mars, but a new startup had been studying antimatter fuels and had invented a much faster rocket.) Soon after we'd arrived, I started to wonder why I'd been looking forward to the trip so much...

    "I'd been hearing" suggests repetition. "I'd been living" suggests that the living arrangement was temporary, and subtly suggests that the speaker had been hoping to leave, rather than stay for years.

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