# Which is the correct tense to use with 'by'?

I gave him the money by 6 PM.
I had given him the money by 6 PM.

I can't spot the difference between them and both seem right, but I was told the first one is wrong. Can anyone say, why?

Here is a another set of sentences with the same issue:

By 5 PM I gave him the book.
By 5 PM I had given him the book.

In both the sentences the book was given before 5 PM and no later than 5 PM. But I can't understand then what the difference between them is.

Is it right to use simple past with 'by' at all? If yes, then why and if not, then why is it incorrect to use simple past with 'by'?

• I would probably go with the simple past rather than the past perfect. I don't think it has anything to to with by though. Typically the past perfect is used to show that one event occurred before another event in the past. Since you're only talking about one thing only, I wouldn't use the it. Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 3:18
• Giambattista, isn't it true the simple past tense talks about a completed action at a particular time, and by 6 Pm is an interval (from some time before 6Pm up to and including 6 Pm) so you would ordinarily say [2aa] I gave him the money at 6 Pm. The above would be acceptable if you were having a discussion about your prediction: [2ab] Q: You said that you would give him the money by 6 Pm. Did you? A: Yes, I gave him the money by 6 Pm. When according to you would we use past perfect with 'by'? Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 4:49
• I wouldn't say that the past perfect is always used every time you talk about an action that was completed at a particular time, for which you could simply use the simple past (The action is completed, is not continuous or repetitive, and is only one action). The past perfect is one of the less often used tenses. You use the past perfect to indicate that one event occurred before another. When you're only talking about one event, use the simple past. Here's an example of where you'd use the past perfect: I had given him the money by 6 PM, which he later deposited in the bank. Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 2:35
• While you can use it in the way that you described, you'll find that most native speakers wouldn't use it in your example, at least not in the US. Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 2:39

I gave him the money is simple past. You can use it to specify something that happened in the past: you can also specify when it happened, either exactly:

I gave him the money at 6pm

or approximately:

I gave him the money this evening
I gave him the money at about 6
I gave him the money by 6pm.

or not at all:

Yes, I gave him the money.

I had given him the money is past perfect simple. We use this when we are talking about something that had already happened before some event or action in the past. The event isn't usually a specific time: it is a part of the story, for example:

I had already given him the money, but he kept on shouting at me

The first sentence, using simple past, is the idiomatic way of saying this. The second sentence doesn't sound right, because after you have said it I am waiting for the event that it happened before: I am not impressed by by 6pm: I want to know what happened next!

The second pair of questions present a different problem.

By 5 PM I gave him the book. By 5 PM I had given him the book.

Starting with by 5 pm makes these sentences look odd on their own: the seem to need a clause before or after them, for example:

I was working all day, and by 5pm I had given him the book.
The deadline was 6pm, but by 5pm I had given him the book.
By 5pm I had given him the book, and then I went home.

• You mean I had given him the money by 6 PM is incorrect? Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 11:56
• On its own It's only half of the story. Provide the rest of the story and it will be fine. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 12:03
• But OP hasn't given any story! And I built an example to make him understand! Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 12:14
• As you say, the OP hasn't given a story, so it does not sound right. You provided a story about what happened beforehand, but you didn't say what happened next, and that's what's required to define the event that all this happened before. It's like a joke with no punchline. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 12:37
• +1 I don't know why a correct answer is at -1 (at the time I'm writing this). @Policewala The answer implies this, but doesn't say it directly: by doesn't really have anything to do with the simple past vs. the past perfect; we'd choose the tense as we'd normally choose, with or without by. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 14:31

Had given shows that you had already given him the book before it got to 5 PM. It helps to show which came first. In this case, you giving him the book came before 5 PM.

• "by 5pm" makes it perfectly clear that the giving happened before 5pm: it is not necessary to push it even further into the past using past perfect. See this link for more information about situations when you should use past perfect: learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/quick-grammar/past-perfect Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 13:03

Both are 'completed' action that the money was given to a man. But the difference is time!

This means that it depends on the context. Both can be used with 'by'.

In the given two sentences, ...had given... is a distant past i.e. later than past. On the other hand, merely using ...gave him... talks about the recent past.

If I make an example for that,

Mike called me. He was very desperate and he said that he wanted money anyhow before dusk. As he is my friend, I gave him the money by 6 PM.

This talks about the incidence that has happened recently.

But...

Mike had called me on last Christmas. He was very desperate and he had said that he wanted money anyhow before dusk. As he is my friend, I had given him the money by 6 PM.

Do you see the difference?

• Past Simple is not just recent past. For example "Cleopatra died on August 12th 30BC" is perfectly correct, despite the fact that she died over 2000 years ago. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 11:39
• But then you have to mention the date to show the distance past. Imagine you saying - Cleopatra died. I'll certainly ask...hey, when? @JavaLatte Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 11:51
• I wouldn't ask. I've read the book, seen the play, I know that she died a long time ago. I know it's not recent past. If I said "Cleopatra killed herself with a poisonous snake", your first question would not be when?... maybe "how?". It's still not recent past. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 12:01
• Exactly, you took a famous example. Try it with something that is unknown as in OP's example of giving someone money! @JavaLatte Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 12:17
• I would write it the same way I wrote it in my comment. I would use simple past throughout. I would say "last Christmas" or "on Christmas" not "on last Christmas". I wouldn't use "anyhow" the way you've used it there. Maybe "he wanted money anyhow he could get it". I'm limited by the comment length here, but the reason to use the perfect form over the simple isn't really about how recent the events are, as @JavaLatte already mentioned. It's a tricky topic though and I don't know a good way to explain it. Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 11:52