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A part of an entry about Past Perfect (424.1) in Swan's Practical English Usage 3rd Ed states that the past perfect is not necessary in the cases where we use conjunctions (e.g. after, as soon as) and are not 'going back' from the time that we are mainly talking about, unless we want to emphasise the separation of two actions. So something like 'After it got dark, we came back inside.' is OK.

Sadly the book's got no example of a question using the past perfect this way. I doubt if we NEED to use the past perfect when we ask questions like 'Had you visited there before that trip ?' Is it also possible to say 'Have you ever visited there before that trip ?'

And for 'Had you read the instructions before you turned the device on ?' Does 'Did you read the instructions before you turned the device on ?' sound good ?

Are there any differences in the meanings of them ?

My understanding now is that they all are not wrong but when using the past simple form, we just don't emphasise that the actions are separated, one finished before another.

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2 Answers 2

I'll address one question:

'Had you read the instructions before you turned the device on?' looks fine.

'Did you read the instructions before you turned the device on?' looks fine.

But notice the 'looks fine' rather than 'sounds fine'.

If I've just caused $500 worth of damage, my agitation will be less amplified by the first variant; use of do (did you ...) sounds rather more confrontational. Of course, intonation and non-verbal communication may be even more confrontational.

So the two variants here are both grammatically fine, mean the same thing, but the first variant might be chosen to avoid adding too much insult to injury.

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Here are two actions — reading the instructions and turning the device on. The former happens first and the latter second. If these two actions do not take place at the same time, you had better use “Had you read the instructions before you turned the device on?” If these two actions take place at the same time you can use “Did you read the instructions before you turned the device on?”

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