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I read the following on abcnews, but couldn't convince myself to accept the past perfect form the sentence. What is the action before which the 'had mailed' part has occurred and completed? And why would he use had given up?

"Abdulfattah "John" Jandali, a Syrian man who fathered Jobs, had emailed his son a few times in a tentative effort to make contact. The father never called the son because he feared Jobs would think the dad who had given him up was now after his fortune."

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The simple past certainly would be fine here. I think the past perfect can be justified if you assume he emailed Jobs before deciding not to phone him. –  Peter Shor Mar 9 '12 at 12:19
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2 Answers 2

The usage of past perfect is correct here. Had emailed is likely used with respect to Jobs' death, but could also be construed to be with respect to this news report.

To give up in this instance means to give up custody or parental rights- as in he was given up for adoption.

The father had given him up for adoption prior to deciding on whether to attempt phone contact.

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Okay, the second one makes sense. But not the first one. I don't think it can be assumed that it refers to his death. Past perfect is based on two actions, where one occurs before the other. Both should be mentioned explicitly or at least narrated somehow. For example, I can't say, Steve Jobs had married Lauren Powell. Even though everyone knows that it happened before his death. –  Noah Mar 9 '12 at 6:38
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Ok, think of the first one this way. the father had emailed the son several times without any response prior to giving up trying to contact him by email. –  Jim Mar 9 '12 at 15:09
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It seems to me that the point in time you are looking for was a decision not to contact Jobs. When the father decided that, he had sent some emails 20 years (or whatever) after he gave up his son for adoption. He also had given up his son 30 years before the failure to contact: both grammatical. I think you are reading it as ?"He had sent the emails after he had given him up", which might well be ungrammatical (depending on context). But the hypothetical 'point in time' doesn't need to be precise, and it only needs to be explicit in the sense that the reader can deduce a specific period.

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