English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

There was the following statement in (April 24) Time magazine’s article titled, “Thanks for dumb terrorists” reporting the capture of Boston bomb attack suspects: http://swampland.time.com/2013/04/21/give-thanks-for-dumb-terrorists/#ixzz2REueMOq5

Why had they not already killed him? If the allegations against the Tsarnaevs are true, they were obviously quite capable of killing in cold blood. Assuming they had his ATM pin number, the owner of the Mercedes no longer served any obvious use to them. What’s more, he knew exactly who they were: The Tsarnaevs had reportedly identified themselves as the marathon bombers.”

What difference would come up by saying “Why had they not already killed him?” instead of a simpler version, “Why didn’t they kill him (then)”? Is there a very big difference?

As we don’t have ‘the past perfect tense – have /had +p.p.’ mode in our language, it’s pretty difficult for me to discern the exact difference of the nuance of messages in two different tenses.

share|improve this question
At a glance it looks like the sentence was revised from "Why hadn't they already killed him?", to exclude the contraction "hadn't". Though, there may be some argument here for "simple past" versus "present perfect" tenses – samuelAndThe Apr 23 '13 at 21:21
Isn't it an argument for 'simple past' versus 'past perfect' tenses? – Yoichi Oishi Apr 24 '13 at 20:53
Right you are. Yesterday I experienced an unfortunate coffee drought. – samuelAndThe Apr 24 '13 at 22:18
@ Yoichi: It's important to note that the reporter specifically and deliberately used the word "already". Idiomatically, Simple Past doesn't work very well with "already", but Past Perfect does. Which probably accounts for GB having only 8 hits for why did they not already (simple past, do-support for "infinitive"), but 551 for why had they not already past perfect, have-support for past participle) – FumbleFingers Apr 24 '13 at 23:52
@dotsamuelswan. What does 'experience an unfortunate coffee drought' mean just for my curiosity? Is it something like a hangover? – Yoichi Oishi Apr 25 '13 at 23:54
up vote 5 down vote accepted

The article uses Past Perfect because the "narrative time" at that point is focussed on

...the carjacking victim “managed to escape”...

...in the preceding paragraph. That's to say, the reporter is asking why the Tsarnaevs hadn't already killed the victim, at some earlier time before he escaped.

I note OP's suggestion includes the word "then". But note that the reporter isn't asking why they didn't kill him when or after he "started escaping". He's specifically asking why they didn't do this some time after getting the ATM pin number and car, but before letting him get free.

Using Simple Past is perfectly valid, but doesn't convey the narrative sequence quite so precisely.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.