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In a museum I saw this sentence, I was a bit surprised

By the time the letter was posted, the children were already dead.

Is it correct? I would write The children had been dead.

What is the difference between these two apart tenses used?

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By the time the letter was posted, the children were already dead.

There's nothing wrong grammatically with this sentence. You usually use the linking verb in front of an adjective instead of "had been" in such sentences. However, if you are using the verb "die" in the sentence, you can say ".............the children had already died". Look at the following sentences:

  1. By the time I went to bed, I was exhausted (The Free DIctionary).

  2. By the time we got home, we were tired and hungry (Longman).

  • Why does it work for die and not dead. Is it because dead are a state and not an action? – user5577 Aug 16 '15 at 12:18
  • When using Perfect Tenses with/for the verb "to be", it seems necessary to give the period for which the state was known/appeared to exist. In this example, "had been dead (for how long? - missing)". I am not sure about this, thought, but that's what my mind is searching for when reading "have been so and so" or "had been so and so". – Victor Bazarov Aug 16 '15 at 14:51
  • user5577, I think you can also use "had been dead'" instead of "were dead" that's more usual. – Khan Aug 16 '15 at 17:56

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