I was reading other questions and came up with a question regarding the usage of "had".

So, does "had" signify past events or make phrases more polite?

I've heard my friends say "I had heard" and "you had mentioned" without any reference to other related actions.

Please read some examples:

"You had mentioned that your sister had been kidnapped by him."

It's not that I don't understand what this sentence is saying, but why should I say "had mentioned" and "had been kidnapped" when the sister is still kidnapped at the point of saying this?

"It's really nice as I had heard."

I really have no idea why this person would say "had heard" instead of saying "I've heard" or "I heard".

  • 3
    Context, context, context. There's no reason on the face of it for using past perfects; but there may be in the context in which they were uttered. May 21, 2013 at 1:48
  • I think this shows the danger of following some Engish rules "by the book" too strictly (in this case, when to use the past perfect tense). The phrases sound perfectly natural to me, though I'm having trouble pinpointing why. Good question, though.
    – J.R.
    May 21, 2013 at 2:08
  • Is "You had mentioned that your sister had been kidnapped by him." a real example? It sounds okay, but not if the sister is still missing--the way I read it, it implies a fair amount of psychological distance between the kidnapping and the speaker's current situation.
    – user230
    May 21, 2013 at 2:22
  • @ snailboat Yes, I actually read/saw it in a movie and copied it word for word. It's not something I came up with. :)
    – jess
    May 21, 2013 at 2:36
  • @StoneyB I was confused because there really wasn't any context. The movie character/my friend just began saying this without referring to anything.
    – jess
    May 21, 2013 at 2:37

1 Answer 1


The problem with this question isn't that it has not received enough attention. It's that it still hasn't been edited to provide the requested context. There's nothing inherently correct/incorrect about OP's cited...

"You had mentioned that your sister had been kidnapped by him."

As pointed out (to the same OP) on a previous question, don't use Past Perfect unless you really have to is a good principle. It might be a slightly contrived context, but we can easily imagine the above sentence being uttered as a "question" (a statement made in the expectation of it being confirmed).

Further suppose the speaker is a detective asking the brother about an earlier conversation he had with someone else. I'm no Agatha Christie, but obviously there could be contexts where the detective needed to know whether that other person was aware of the kidnapping before that conversation took place (or at least, before the point in the conversation that the recounting to the detective has reached).

If the detective had used Simple Past, the brother might interpret the question differently, and answer "Yes" when what he actually meant was he'd mentioned the kidnapping later, not earlier. The entire denouement of a crime story could thus hinge on an incorrect answer to a misunderstood question.

But for most conversational purposes, OP should simply assume that Past Perfect is overused by some non-native speakers, and he should strive to avoid being in that number.

  • 1
    +1 And I'd bet that "It really was as nice as I had heard" is perfectly clear in context: "It really was as nice as I had heard before I actually went". May 26, 2013 at 21:55
  • I was confused because the characters that said these lines started the conversation with "had heard"/"had mentioned" without any context whatsoever. These lines were the lines that began the conversations. Well, for "it's nice as I had heard," the character just arrived somewhere and he began to say how nice it was by saying this line. I saw no reason to use past perfect. And I believe these were written by native speakers, so I was wondering if there was a reason behind using past perfect. Is it for example used to be polite?
    – jess
    May 27, 2013 at 3:41
  • @jess: Even native speakers often make "sub-optimal" choices about which tense to use, so perhaps your speaker (or writer, it's not clear to me) simply made a trivial "mistake". On the other hand, perhaps his primary "temporal focus of attention" at the time was already some point in the past, and he wanted to explicitly convey that he'd heard something earlier than that. I cannot repeat often enough that you yourself should avoid Past Perfect unless you know you need it (for "temporal/semantic" reasons, not "politeness"). May 27, 2013 at 12:30
  • I'm trying to stick to simple past as you suggested last time! :) But these past perfects used by native American writers confuse me a lot, so I'm just trying to figure out why they would use past perfect. Like this one: "For example if you have designed a page to include an image that is wide, the image you use should be wide. You may need to resize the image. It is important to understand this; imagine that you had designed a webpage to include a wide picture. You can reduce or increase the size." I don't see why past perfect is used here. Can native writers really make mistakes?
    – jess
    May 28, 2013 at 0:33
  • @jess: Obviously "native writers" can and do make mistakes. That's not really a long enough fragment for me to form much of an opinion as to the writer's competence, but I can't say the signs are good. The Present Perfect have designed looks unnecessarily confusing; perhaps it distracted the writer himself, causing him to accidentally let what looks like a completely wrong Past Perfect had designed slip in later. But as I say, I can't really give opinions on such subtle points at that level of detail without a link to the full text. May 28, 2013 at 2:05

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