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Their divorce was a real shock to me. I had met them the month before and they seemed very happy.

We can suppose I met them many times the month before to use the past perfect but if we imagine that I met them only one time, should I use the past simple then?

Their divorce was a real shock to me. I met them the month before and they seemed very happy.

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    the month before clearly indicates the action of meeting them was before they got divorced. You can use either the past perfect tense or the past simple. There is no indication of how many times you met them in either tense. – user24743 Feb 10 '16 at 16:39
  • I don't think Past Perfect has any implications regarding whether you met them once or on multiple occasions. Although there's nothing actually wrong with using it in your example, I don't think many people would in most contexts (golden rule: unless you know exactly why you need Past Perfect, stick to the simpler form). If you're in a conversational context where you're still shocked (and/or your state of shock is contextually relevant at time of utterance), it's almost certainly a bad idea to use the unnecessarily complex tense form. – FumbleFingers Feb 10 '16 at 16:42
  • user5577 - I have closevoted because we need more context. It makes all the difference if you're just making these statements in a "here and now" context (discussing a still-ongoing situation with mutual friends, for example), as opposed to a more extended past tense narrative (writing about something that happened several decades ago, for example). – FumbleFingers Feb 10 '16 at 16:47
  • In my grammar book where this sentence comes from they said past perfect is better to show or emphasize the contrast between the " happyness" and the divorce – user5577 Feb 10 '16 at 17:42
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    @user5577: (off-topic) Although I do have a couple of examples when divorce made both mates happier than their wedding had done, could you please share the title of the book and its author's name with me? I like this kind of reading, really. – Lamplighter Jun 9 '16 at 21:18
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In conversation, the simple past and the past perfect are both acceptable, and it really doesn't matter how many times you met them over that month. The difference is that, if you use the simple past, you are expressing both your meeting them and the divorce relative to the present. If you still feel the shock, for instance, that might be quite natural. If you are trying to paint a picture of how you felt in that moment when you learned of the divorce, the past perfect is what you want. The simple past keeps the user in the present, thinking about two past events. The past perfect places the user at the moment of your learning of the divorce, and thinking about the earlier event as being in the past at that point.

I say "In conversation" because, in writing, you tend be in the storytelling mode where you put the reader at the time of the past event you are talking about. In speech, you are in the present with your listener, although you can still "place them in the past" with the past perfect.

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You are talking about two past actions, not a single action. The first is meeting them and the second is seeming very happy. A sentence showing a single action will be as follows:

I met them the month before.

They seemed very happy.

However, with the time expression (before, after, etc.) You can use either the past simple or the past perfect for the first past action and the past simple for the second past action, without any difference in meaning.

I (had) met them the month before, and they seemed very happy.

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  • No Downvote, but there is difference in meaning--see Mark's answer for an explanation. And think about it: why would there be two forms if they have don't have some difference in meaning? – Alan Carmack Nov 7 '16 at 18:31

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