While reading a book, I came across some sentences that used past-perfect "after" an event had taken place. Actually, I've seen many books do this, so this must be the grammatically correct way, but I'm curious why.

It was after Dad died and we had moved to New York.

Why shouldn't it be the other way around, as in "It was after Dad had died and we moved to New York"?

Not long after that, she had made the decision to sell the house.

I'm really confused why it isn't "Not long after that, she made the decision to sell the house"? It feels like the decision making took after "that."

He stayed out until the sun had set.

Well, I guessing that this one means that he went home after the sun had set, but I'm still not sure why the writer would write this way.

  • "He stayed out until the sun set" means he went home when the sun set. "He stayed out until the sun had set" means he went home after the sun set. There's not much difference in meaning in this case, but they're both grammatical, and this difference in meaning might be more significant for other situations. Commented Mar 31, 2013 at 12:49
  • For the first and second sentence, you are going to have to look at the context; there should be some other event being discussed which happened after she made the decision to sell the house (or they moved to New York), and which isn't mentioned in this sentence. The event the past perfect is prior to does not have to be contained in the same sentence. If there isn't a later event mentioned immediately before or after these sentences, I would say that they are ungrammatical. Commented Mar 31, 2013 at 13:32

1 Answer 1


What you are struggling with are creative choices in the use of the language. The writer intends to structure things as he or she did in order to accomplish a particular effect or a particular meaning. None of these sentences can be considered wrong.

Let's look closely at one of them to illustrate what I mean: "Not long after that, she had made the decision to sell the house." This puts the reader in a position of viewing a completed action, and seeing the protagonist at a point in her life at which this action was accomplished, and she was "past it" in some way; it might be emphasizing the emotional completeness of her action, and how she was fully resolved in her action of accepting that the house should have been sold.

Now let's rephrase it as you suggest: "Not long after that, she made the decision to sell the house." This puts the action into a fairly active, ongoing state; in this way of saying it, selling the house has become more a matter of the present circumstances of her life. It carries some implication that the writer may have more to say on the subject of the sale, and/or that the protagonist is still involved in the entire process, and we haven't yet seen all of the consequences to her life.

Can you get all of this out of such a slight change in locution? Yes, you certainly can, and that is why creative writers of both fiction and nonfiction care about such subtle choices in their writing.

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    Indeed. English (like every other language) is full of options and alternate structures, a fact which has unfortunately escaped the notice of English teachers, textbook authors, test designers, and advice givers worldwide, who mostly insist that only their way is the right way. Half the questions we get at ELU ask about which of two perfectly normal variants is the correct one. Commented Mar 31, 2013 at 17:40
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    @JohnLawler +1 I must mention (as I just did after another comment of yours) that, cognizant of and impressed as I am by your expertise, I am humbled by your agreement. Thank you. Commented Apr 1, 2013 at 2:15

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