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What is the difference between the usage of simple past and present perfect in the following:

Update: Here is the conversation.

A. I am going to get some food. [Apparently the food was there] B. I thought they have taken it off.

Or B. I thought they took it off.

Is one preferred over the other if there is no difference?

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The second one is the only one that makes sense to me. –  Julia Apr 25 '12 at 2:38
    
Your first example should be "I thought they had taken it off." –  JLG Apr 25 '12 at 2:38
    
Can you give more context? What are they supposed to have taken off? The past perfect (they had taken) seems like it makes more sense than both of your options, but it is hard to say for sure without knowing what idea you are trying to get across. –  Cameron Apr 25 '12 at 2:41
    
Why "I thought" and not "I think" ? I thought past tense didn't make any sense here. –  Peter Shor Apr 25 '12 at 3:26
    
@PeterShor- Well. You are right. But before I say that I realized that the food was still there. –  Noah Apr 25 '12 at 3:30

2 Answers 2

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You don't use the present perfect in conjunction with the simple past like that; it sends conflicting signals about the time frame. To refer to an action that was already complete prior to the time you are referring to with the simple past, you need the past perfect:

I thought they had taken it off.

Given two times, "N" for now and "N-1" for some time in the past, that sentence says that you believed at time N-1 that the thing had been removed prior to time N-1.

To refer to an action that happened at (about) the same time as you are referring to with the simple past, the simple past is good:

I thought they took it off.

That says that you believed at time N-1 that the thing was being removed at approximately that same time.

With the combination in your first sentence of the simple past with the present perfect, you're sort of saying that you believed at time N-1 that the thing had been removed between time N-1 and N, which is a contradictory arrangement of times.

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  • "I thought they have taken it off" is ungrammatical. You can't put use a verb in the present perfect tense as subordinate to a verb in the simple past tense.
  • "I thought they took it off" is probably the simplest and most common form. Here, a verb in the simple past tense is subordinate to another verb in the simple past tense. This doesn't say anything about the time when the "taking it off" took place. Obviously, it must have happened before the "thinking" took place, but the sentence doesn't explicitly say so.
  • "I thought they had taken it off" has pretty much the same meaning as "I thought they took it off". The difference is that it emphasises the fact that when "I thought" took place, the "taking it off" was already in the past. The present tense version of this sentence is "I think they have taken it off". When the main verb is changed to the simple past, the subordinate verb has to change to past perfect (aka pluperfect) to match.
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Cant accept two answers. Will give you an upvote. –  Noah Apr 25 '12 at 3:58

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