Once you use past perfect, do you have to use past perfect even for an action that happened simultaneously?

I sent you an answer yesterday. Remember? It's the answer to the question you had asked me about since you had trouble answering it.

For this "had", should I use past perfect or is past perfect implied here because I said "had asked"?

EDIT: I don't think I made this edit very noticeable.

For example, in "I have checked your email and forwarded it to X," the "have" is implied, right? Both in writing and speech, people will understand that you are saying "I have forwarded it to X". If I were to write my first example instead of saying it, is the "had" implied in the "had trouble answering it" part? (Once you backshift, do you no longer need to backshift or do you have to backshift every single time you mention a past perfect action?)

I mean, how can I distinguish between 1) the person first had trouble answering a question, so he/she asked me a question and 2) the person having trouble answering a question and he/she asking me happened around the same time. Or is this distinction not very necessary since I'm not writing a book or anything?

  • What do you mean by answer? The answer to a test? To a homework exercise? Was he asking about the meaning of life?! One more thing, native speakers will say: difficulty in answering a question. Not trouble.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 21, 2013 at 18:41
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA No, as a native speaker, I would definitely say that I had trouble answering a question, not that I had difficulty in answering it.
    – Daniel
    Jun 21, 2013 at 18:50
  • @mari-loua Do I really have to specify what kind of answer? I was just making up a random example...
    – jess
    Jun 21, 2013 at 18:55
  • @Daniel I stand corrected, trouble answering sounded odd to me.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 21, 2013 at 19:00
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA Yeah, I probably wouldn't write "I had trouble answering," but I would definitely prefer that over "difficulty" when speaking.
    – Daniel
    Jun 21, 2013 at 19:39

2 Answers 2


It depends.

Do you need to employ past perfect with HAVE trouble? Yes and No.

No: this series of sentences is clearly informal, and in that register, there is little or no need to maintain perfect consistency of tenses.

(In fact, it would surprise me to encounter perfect consistency, because in speech people are rarely 'looking' more than a phrase or so ahead as they compose their sentences. Sentences as long as your last one ordinarily only come about because you find yourself having to add reminder after reminder until the other party finally remembers, and your mental activity is directed more to prompting than to grammatical precision.)

But in formal, written discourse , consistency must be maintained, and the verb forms and constructions should make the temporal relationships of the events you narrate as unambiguous as possible. Accordingly, Yes: having defined the temporal location of the question in relationship to your answer, you must also locate the cause of the question in the same timeframe, by using the same past perfect construction.

  • I had difficulty (oops!) in trying to rephrase jess's original text without making harsh and radical changes. How would you have said this message?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 22, 2013 at 6:37
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA How you say something like this will be driven in part by your interlocutor's responses at each stage. But if I'm writing it would probably be something more like "Joe - did the answer I sent yesterday resolve your difficulty with the question about [whatever it was about]?" Note that most of jess' content has disappeared, because writing affords me the leisure and the opportunity to bypass all the merely phatic rubbish and proceed directly to what it is I really want to know. --But that has nothing to do with jess' question! Jun 22, 2013 at 11:31
  • @Stoney, I observed that you write "jess'", whereas Mari-Lou writes "jess's". As far as I know "jess'" is correct, but are you so gentle to confirm if also "jess's" is correct? Or, she is wrong?
    – user114
    Jun 24, 2013 at 21:33
  • @Carlo_R Mari-LouA's spelling is phonetically more accurate, and I take no exception to it. (But phonetic accuracy has never been a virtue in English orthography!) Mine is the traditional way I was taught nearly 60 years ago. Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choice. When your publishers pay the money they take their choice. Jun 24, 2013 at 22:15

If you're speaking directly to the person concerned then your message is perfectly acceptable, clear and the listener will understand without hesitation. As StoneyB correctly stated:

"... and in that register, there is little or no need to maintain perfect consistency of tenses."

If you are leaving a written message either on a note or email, that again is informal, and you needn't worry excessively about style or tense consistency. It's brief and self explanatory.

If, however, you want to understand where you need to put the past perfect tense then you should write:

I sent you an answer yesterday. Remember? It's the answer to the question you had asked. The one you couldn't find a solution/answer to.

  1. "I sent ... yesterday" = an action completed in the defined past -- yesterday.
  2. "you had asked" = this action was performed presumably BEFORE yesterday.
  3. "you couldn't find.." = Now we have stabilized when the question was asked, i.e. BEFORE yesterday we can use the past simple (see No.1).

I would omit since because that word is often used in conjunction with the present perfect, present perfect continuous and past perfect and I think that is where your dilemma stems from. "Since" also means "inasmuch as" and "because". You used it correctly in your original message:

It's the answer to the question you had asked me since (because) you had trouble answering it.

By leaving out "since" and rephrasing the second half of your message, you'll see the tenses you used were (after all) correct.

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