From Intermediate Language Practice by Michael Vince

The police suspected that Brian had broken the window at his house because he wanted to make them think that a burglar had stolen his valuable stamp collection. They thought that Brian had done this because he needed the money. However, they didn't know that Brian had flown to Brazil the week before, and was abroad when the burglary took place.

Why "had flown"? Is it because it is here to emphasize the innocence of Brian because it is obvious as it is written a week before that the fly happened before the police did not know, or is it to respect the backshifting done with "suspected" and "thought", or both of them — backshifting and emphasize?


2 Answers 2


A past perfect locates its event before the 'Reference Time': the past time you are talking about, the 'current' time in your narrative.

Reference Time is established by simple or progressive past verbs. In the passage you quote these are suspected, thought, did not know, what was going through the minds of the police, so your Reference Time is the time when the police investigated the crime.

The past perfects mark events which occurred before the investigation: they suspected that he had broken the window before they investigated, they thought that he had done that before they investigated, and they did not know that he had flown to Brazil before they investigated.


It's nothing to do with his innocence. It is entirely to do with locating the event (his flying) earlier than the point of focus (the burglary).

  • Past perfect (had flown) occurs before simple past (suspected, did)
    – Peter
    Commented Feb 14, 2016 at 11:31
  • But before is written so we know that the burglary happened a week after the fly and we know that the suspicion happened after the fly and the burglary so there is no need for me to use past perfect or to respect the backshifting done with suspected and thought
    – Yves Lefol
    Commented Feb 14, 2016 at 12:12
  • @user5577: You can't use the fly as a noun like that (also in your question text). It should be the flight. In some unusual contexts you could use the "gerund-as-noun" form flying, but that doesn't really work well in your specific example. Commented Feb 14, 2016 at 13:25
  • @user5577: No, there is no need, but unfortunately language doesn't work that way: it is as it is (as we use it), not as somebody thinks it should be. If you said "they didn't know that Brian flew to Brazil the week before, and was abroad when the burglary took place", you would be understood, sure, but it would not sound natural Englsh. The temporal focus is the burglary (or the investigation), and we would refer to earlier events with the past perfect.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Feb 14, 2016 at 16:02

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