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A group of environmentalists helped direct several small sharks that had lost their way after they had swum through polluted waters to migrate South.

Swimming comes before losing the way, yet both verbs are in past perfect. I'm told that this sentence is correct. Is this sentence correct and what about the past perfect should I know to explain this usage?

  • Why should there be an objection to more than one (unrelated) instance of the past perfect? What you were told is true. There's nothing special about the usage of had here. See also, ell.stackexchange.com – Kris Nov 18 '13 at 13:47
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It is correct. Both actions happened before the fact that the environmentalists helped the small sharks, that's why they need the Past Perfect form. The use of after specifies which of these two actions happened first, i.e. first the sharks swam through polluted waters, then they lost their way.

  • Very good answer, but I still prefer the term 'pluperfect'! – WS2 Nov 18 '13 at 12:43
  • The use of after also implies a sequence of two past events. Why is it that we must use "helped" as the reference point? For example, couldn't I just say, "...that had lost their way after they had swum..." – user1411469 Nov 18 '13 at 12:43
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    @user1411469, yes, you could. In fact, that is precisely what the sentence does say, so I don’t really understand the question in your comment here. We must use ‘helped’ as the reference point because that is the reference point that is given in the sentence. That two events appear as a chronological sequence does not mean they should be in different tenses. “We had lunch, saw a movie, and then walked home” are all in the past tense though they are sequential. It should quite obviously not be, “We had lunch, see a movie, and will walk home” if all three have already happened. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 18 '13 at 12:56
  • Sorry, I meant to say, "...that lost their way after they had swum...", but your clarification answered my original question anyway. Thank you. By the way, would it be correct to say, "that lost their way after they had swum..."? – user1411469 Nov 18 '13 at 14:13
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The sentence is correct because the first past perfect verb (had lost) is not a part of the original sentence which is "A group of environmentalists helped direct several small sharks after they had swum through polluted waters to migrate South."

The sentence "that had lost their way" is an adjective clause so it doesn't count as it's separate from the two clauses in the original sentence. Therefore, the "you can't have two past perfects in one sentence" rule still stands.

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