"When the brothers were reunited, Hans explained how it was that he was still alive. After having been wounded towards the end of the war, he had been sent to hospital and was separated from his unit. The hospital had been bombed and Hans had made his way back into Western Germany on foot. Meanwhile, his unit was lost and all records of him had been destroyed. Hans returned to his family home, but the house had been bombed and no one in the neighborhood knew what had become of the inhabitants. Assuming that his family had been killed during an air raid, Hans settled down in a village fifty miles away where he had remained ever since."

The narrator sets the two situations "was separated from his unit" and "his unit was lost" in simple past tense. My understanding is that it is for reasons of style, because if "had been separated" and "had been lost" were used instead, then there would be too many had-been's one after another in the text. Is my understanding correct?

If so, my second question is, how, when we are writing stories, should we make a choice as to which verbs can be switched to the simple past and which cannot for a whole passage in the past perfect ?

2 Answers 2


It really comes down to style and how you want to tell the story. The simple past will do for many of those events, but they do relate to when Hans' brother learns of the events (certainly the hospital was bombed - it didn't continue over some period - but Hans' brother didn't know that until long after, so the past perfect can be used.)

All of the events can be related in the past perfect but that would be very dreary. In a sentence, a simple past can be used to describe something that resulted from something in the past perfect (he had injured himself therefore he walked slowly). I would also use past perfect for things that took some time (Hans certainly had made his way on foot, and he had remained in the village.)

Style. Repetition. Both play a role.

  • Thanks. Now I understand why Hans being separated from his unit is in the simple past (as a result of being wounded and sent to hospital). However, in "his unit was lost and all records of him had been destroyed", the former event is in the simple past while the latter is in the past perfect. Is this choice of tenses arbitrary or there are reasons behind it?
    – lee
    Jan 14, 2014 at 17:22
  • fairly arbitrary. Easily no difference between the two (they were lost/they had been lost - either way, no time is specified but the past). Just style, I think. Jan 14, 2014 at 20:44

Isn't it a matter of time?

He "had been sent to hospital" and the consequence of this is that he "was seperated from his unit". The separation happened more recently, so it is only simple past.

Same with the second one.

Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, I'm not native english.

  • Then according to the sequence of the events, should the text immediately following "was separated from his unit" all use the simple past, i.e., "The hospital was bombed and Hans made his way back into Western Germany on foot. Meanwhile, his unit was lost and all records of him was destroyed...."?
    – lee
    Jan 14, 2014 at 16:05
  • I think it's for ordering the events in a timeline. "he had been sent to hospital" and "all records of him had been destroyed" both happened before "was separated from his unit." and "his unit was lost". At least that's how I understand it. Jan 14, 2014 at 16:09
  • I suppose "all records of him had been destroyed" happened after or at earliest at the same time when "his unit was lost". No?
    – lee
    Jan 14, 2014 at 16:22
  • At least the choice of tenses says something different. And if you imagine the situation most likely the records get destroyed and the unit is disbanded afterwards. Jan 14, 2014 at 16:25

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