Please have a look at this extract from an interview, the question was:

What was it that made you want to choose the drums?

The Blind Baron asked me if I was interested in learning and I took him up on his offer. I had always secretly wanted to learn how to play, but the opportunity never presented itself and, for various reasons, I never pursued it.

I am just wondering why it is not had presented and had persued as both actions happened before and finished when the Blind Baron offered him to learn how to play drums. Is it because the first past perfect put the whole sentence before the offer?

  • Because the desire to learn the drums existed before the period of time during which no opportunity to do so presented itself, and during which he never pursued the interest. Each sentence can define its own time-frame. It need not be defined at the "paragraph" level.
    – TimR
    Jan 3, 2016 at 12:17
  • Would the meaning of the sentence be changed if he used had presented and had pursued
    – Yves Lefol
    Jan 3, 2016 at 15:23

1 Answer 1


In situations like this the choice between past and past-perfect forms depends on where you want to focus your reader's attention.

A cinematic analogy may help: think of your time references as a sort of temporal 'camera', which can

  • point at different points along the conventional left-to-right timeline: straight ahead for the present, to the right for the future, or to the left for the past ... and at future or past points that are more or less distant from the present.

  • employ wider or narrower framing to depict a larger or smaller span of time.

When you employ a past-tense form, you are pointing your camera at a particular point in the past—your 'Reference Time' (RT)—with a relatively narrow framing. In consecutive narrative you pan more or less gradually to the right, so your RT keeps shifting to later and later events.

But if at some point in this narrative you employ a past-perfect construction, you abruptly widen your frame to include not only the events at RT but also events before RT. These prior events are more distant, so they lie to the side or in the background of your frame; events in your 'current' RT are still focal, foregrounded.

At this point, however, you have a choice: you may maintain this perspective, with its foreground/background contrast by continuing to speak in the past-perfect, or you may shift your perspective—narrow your frame and redirect the camera to the prior events—by continuing with past-tense forms.

There's no rule in grammar which says you "should" pick one or the other; it's an artistic choice.

* The same analogy is employed in §4. When and how should I use the perfect? of our Canonical Post on perfect constructions, where the time-shifting use of perfects is addressed more fully. I may say that the analogy is not my own; I encountered it ten or fifteen years ago on the old B-Hebrew list, in discussions of the verb system in Biblical Hebrew.

  • OK But in this example what is surprised me is that if you write presented and pursued you can think it was after the Blind Baron made his offer: if you use past perfect there is no ambiguity, that is why I thought it was better to use past perfect in this case.May be the meaning here for you is still cristal clear without past perfect
    – Yves Lefol
    Jan 4, 2016 at 17:17
  • 1
    @user5577 No; presented and pursued now lie within the prior 'domain' created by the past perfect, so there's no ambiguity. ... Besides, the semantics of the situation forbid you to understand the non-opportunity as occurring after the Baron in fact offered such an opportunity! Jan 4, 2016 at 17:24

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