Someone asks me:

Was John surprised when he won?

I have two answers to choose from. Which is more appropriate?

  1. Yes. He had not expected to.
  2. Yes. He did not expect to.

Personally I like the first answer. I feel like there is an omitted part after Yes which establishes the time frame—"Yes[, he was surprised]." And since his expectations took place before he started being surprised, I have to use the double past.

Yes[, he was surprised]. He had not expected to [win before he started being surprised].

  • @ Graduate: I'd be interested to know what textbook you're referring to there. Statistically speaking I'd be pretty certain your first version is actually more common in most contexts, but I can't see that as justification for saying it's "to be preferred" anyway. Both versions are perfectly acceptable stylistic choices in almost all contexts. Jul 8, 2013 at 16:38
  • @FumbleFingers: "New Headway," Advanced, 2003 year. I want to make it clear, that I gave myself these two answers to choose from, not the textbook. I just found out in the answers that the second answer was preferred.
    – mosceo
    Jul 8, 2013 at 16:49
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    @FumbleFingers I think what you said is more true of BrE than AmE. On that subject, here's some interesting reading on the present perfect and simple past: separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2006/08/…
    – user230
    Jul 8, 2013 at 17:10
  • @snailboat: There are certainly some significant US/UK differences in ancillary verb usages, but I'm far from convinced this is one of them. There are millions of hits in NGrams for both He had not expected to and He did not expect to, but I see no significant difference when I toggle between US/UK corpuses (in both, OP's first version is the newer form, which has only recently become the more common form). Jul 8, 2013 at 21:14
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    @FumbleFingers Without the context, you can't just compare appearances of the two uses. The thing that makes the first option sound more appropriate is that we're already talking about something in the past, and this is further. Simply comparing the usage of two different verb tenses gives us absolutely no insight into which is more appropriate in a specific instance. (I would say he did not expect to win to explain why he is so surprised. But not why he was so surprised.)
    – Emmabee
    Jul 8, 2013 at 21:32

1 Answer 1


I prefer the past perfect (had not expected) for exactly the reason you gave. There is already a time in the past being referenced (the time at which he won), and in order for the situation to make sense it is necessary that his expectations preceded that win.

Yes. He had not expected to [win before it happened, hence his surprise].

If the win was in the present, then I would definitely choose the simple past.

Is he surprised? Yes, he didn't expect to [win before now].

So then, the question becomes why doesn't your textbook also prefer the past perfect?

Well, the past tense isn't at all wrong. There isn't a timeline explicitly stated, and without the implied information we added the sentence is simply telling us about his mental state at a single point in time.

Yes, he did not expect to win.

It's not optimal, but it's still completely correct. The fact that it gave you the simple past can be chalked up to preferences.


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