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I have been reading a lot about the Past Perfect tense recently and I think that I am getting more and more confused with the logic behind it the more I read about the tense. Many sources say that we only need to use the past perfect when the sequence of events is not clear without it. Also, they say that we do have to use the past perfect tense every time you mention two things that happened in the past. But many examples that are given about the tense include something like this: "I had switched off the lights before I went to bed" or "after they had had breakfast, they left for the park". Could someone explain to me why the past perfect is necessary in these examples when it is already clear from the sequence of events which action had occurred before the second action?

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You only need to use the past perfect when the sequence of events is not clear without it. But you can use the past perfect in other cases where there is a sequence of events in the past. In both or your examples, either the past or the past perfect is grammatical. –  Peter Shor Jun 14 '13 at 21:43
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What @Peter said. But I'd add that whereas native speakers would quite casually say "After they'd had breakfast, they left", they would tend not to use the unnecessarily verbose "had had" form, since past perfect isn't actually required in such a context. –  FumbleFingers Jun 14 '13 at 22:20
    
It's always a mistake to read about past perfect tense, particularly since there is no past perfect tense in Modern English. Reading about it is wasted time, and it's no wonder you're confused. There's a vast amount of nonsense out there labelled as explanations of zombies like the Past Perfect. –  John Lawler Jun 14 '13 at 23:01
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@PeterShor No, when John says tense he means single-word inflection, which is why the past perfect cannot be one of his tenses, since it takes more than one word in English (unlike in Latin). Here the auxiliary is in the (simple) past and the main verb itself is in the past participle. He doesn’t seem to believe in synthetic tenses. The problem with banishing it from the tenses is that it remains a construct that people use, and so will need to know how to use correctly. That doesn’t make it non-existent. –  tchrist Jun 15 '13 at 11:35
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Grammarians' discussions about what constitutes a tense are probably irrelevant for most English language learners. Past perfect is the traditional label for the common had + past participle construction and is the term that learners will find in pedagogic grammars. And while the past perfect may be dispensable in most accounts of past events, it is certainly sometimes needed for indirect speech (He said that he'd just eaten. ?He said that he just ate.) and always for the so-called Conditional 3 (If I had known that, I would have … ). –  Shoe Jun 15 '13 at 17:09

1 Answer 1

In your case both constructions would work. I would not use the past perfect in these cases because "after" and "before" already clarify the sequence of events. If you didn't have those, I'd probably go with the "Past Perfect" construction.

When I got to bed, I'd already switched off the light.

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However, exercises (for learners of the language) will often require you to use only the Past Perfect possibility so as to make sure you practice both structure and general meaning, since the simultaneous use of after/before and Past Perfect will help the learner associate the tense to the correct function. In lower levels, you'll be asked to use Past Perfect whenever it's possible, even with after/before/etc; in higher levels, you'll be asked to use it only in natural situations (when it needs clarifying, e.g. if there's no after/before/etc). –  Sara Costa Jun 15 '13 at 13:34

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