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What's the difference between these sentences:

  • I had thought there was something wrong with the tape recorder.
  • I thought there was something wrong with the tape recorder.

Would it be more appropriate to use the one with 'had' i.e. first one? and why?

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2  
It's impossible to answer such a question in isolation. We need to know the context. –  Barrie England Jul 10 '12 at 19:57

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The first form is used only when you describe event/state that happened/lasted before another event in the past. The second is just plain past.

"I had thought there was something wrong with the tape recorder until I heard my own voice recorded with studio equipment." (the thought ended when you heard it)

"I thought there was something wrong with the tape recorder."
"No, it was just a bad tape." (there were no other actions that would end your thought in the past)

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A great deal depends on the stress. If thought receives strong stress, then it really doesn't matter which one you say; they'll come out the same anyway.

The consonant cluster /dθ/ is very hard for English speakers to pronounce, and we tend to elide it to simply /θ/, which would delete the only mark of the past perfect auxiliary had, and make the two forms indistinguishable in ordinary speech.

I.e,

  • I had thought ... would come out /ayd 'θɔt .../; /dθ/ => /θ/, producing */ay 'θɔt .../
  • I thought ... would come out /ay 'θɔt .../, the same as the other one.

How you write it is up to you. Grammar is about spoken language, not writing.

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Did you really think that the questioner was asking about pronunciation? To me the question was clearly about tenses (per the tags). Most resources available to non-linguists will treat tense as a grammatical category. In fact, I was perplexed by your claim that grammar is about spoken language, not writing. Web searches did not provide anything to substantiate it. I suspect you are confusing your "grammar" as a bit of rarefied linguistics jargon with the "grammar" of the lingua franca. The answer was at best unhelpful, but to me also seemed condescending. Please correct me if I am wrong. –  Tolerance72 Jul 10 '12 at 21:15
    
Once again, language is spoken. And all grammars are developed by speakers of languages as they evolve the language by speech. Writing is modern technology. There are many languages without it, and they all have grammars. There are no written languages that do not represent natural spoken languages. "Tense" is a grammatical category, and therefore has to do with spoken language. As to what the OP was asking about, they didn't say either speak or write, but use. –  John Lawler Jul 10 '12 at 21:23
    
Use could be use while speaking, or use while writing. Anyway, the question is about using "I had thought," or "I thought." I don't think pronunciation matters, as the question is still about which tense the OP should use, and that is valid whatever you write the sentence, or you say it. –  kiamlaluno Jul 11 '12 at 15:32
    
They're both past tense. The first one uses an auxiliary verb, but it isn't a different tense. There are only two tenses in English. And pronunciation matters, at least for native speakers. For people who only deal with written English, it may be different. –  John Lawler Jul 11 '12 at 16:35

The difference is in the tense.

I thought...

... is Simple Past tense. There was a specific time in the past when it happened.

I had thought...

... is Past Perfect tense. It happened in the past, and the act was completed prior to another event began (also in the past).

Therefore, taken in isolation, the Simple Past would be more correct, because your text does not describe any other past event to have occurred after the thinking.

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