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I'm pretty sure that I can use 'past tense' where we can use 'past perfect'. The only difference that I feel is if speaker is willing to emphasize the fact something had happened before another happened. Here are examples.

  1. They started to work on this project, and about a month after that, I started.

  2. They had started to work on this project, and about a month after that, I started.

  3. They started to work on this project about a month before I started.

  4. They had started to work on this project about a month before I started.

I feel all of them are available and natural, I prefer #2,4 though. Am I right?

  • In conversational speech, the past is often used instead of the past perfect, especially when the time relationships are clear, either because of other time markers in the sentence itself, or from the overall context. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 24 '15 at 18:22
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In your examples maybe the difference is not obvious but suppose these sentences:

1) When I got there they went.

2) When I got there they had gone.

Sentence #1 could mean when you reached the place, you observed that they are leaving the place.

Sentence #2 could mean when you reached the place, you didn't see them. they had left there.

In my opinion past perfect has a time sequence within. It says the activity finished in a certain point in the past. that point could be the start point of another activity in the past.

-----past perfect--------}
                          ----- past -------- } present

But there is no order between two past activities

-----past -----------------------past --------}
--------------past ------------- past ------- } present

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