I met you before you had met her.

I had met you before you met her.

I asked a native speaker from America about these two sentences. He said that they are both grammatically correct, but he prefers the first one. (Though he described them as very busy -- too much information is included.)

I can't understand why the first one is correct -- I use the Past Perfect in the second clause (you had met) despite the fact that it happens after the event from the first clause (I met you). Can you explain this?

1 Answer 1


The first and most important thing you need to understand about using the past perfect was expressed by FumbleFingers here.

The guiding principle should be don’t use Past Perfect unless you really have to.

The reason your friend found your sentences ‘busy’ is probably that the word before expresses everything you want the past perfect to express.

I met you before you met her. You could also express this as
I met you and then you met her.

The second thing to understand, about perfect constructions in general, is that a perfect construction does not narrate a prior event, it expresses a current state which exists as a consequence of the prior event. For instance:

We arrived at the cave, only to find that the mouth was blocked by six feet of sand. Luckily, I had packed a shovel, so we were able to clear an entrance.

That is, the past perfect expresses the fact that when you arrived you had a shovel in your possession, because earlier you had packed one. In cinematic terms, it's not a ‘flashback’, a jump backward in time, but a sort of temporal ‘pull out’—the ‘camera’ backs up so the field of vision brings the past into view, but it remains as it were focused on the point at which you discovered the sand.

Consequently, the past perfect should be used only when your narrative has defined a specific point in time (the technical term is Reference Time) at which the state established by the prior event becomes relevant. This is not the case with your two sentences:

I met you before you had met her. ... there is no Reference Time after their meeting to which the past perfect is related.
I had met you before you met her. ... This is closer to working, but it still does not define a time at which your earlier acquaintance became relevant. This might be established (and usually would be) by further context:

I met her—it was the first time the three of us were together—at that dinner at Spiro's. The two of you were just becoming a thing, but I had met you long before you met her, so you and I were more relaxed with each other. I think that bothered her, and is why she still resents me.

  • 1
    I don't understand the difference between "I had met you before you met her." and "Mario had already arrived home when her mother walked in." (The latter is an example given from a grammar book.) Giving more context should not be strictly necessary, when using the past perfect tense, should it?
    – apaderno
    Jun 9, 2013 at 20:17
  • 1
    @kiamlaluno 1) When her mother walked in and when you met her are specific times that can act as RT. Before you met her does not name a time but a duration. 2) You've got it backward: past perfect is not necessary when the context gives before ... it adds no time information.**3** A past perfect construction doesn't talk about the past-in-the-past but about the present-in-the-past, just as present perfect doesn't talk about the past but about the present. If there's no present (whether that's located in Utterance Time or in Past-Narrative Time) there's nothing to talk about. Jun 9, 2013 at 21:40

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