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My question might seem to be stupid enough, it's basic grammar, I believe; however, I'm at my wits' end. Should we use Past perfect or Past Simple in the following sentence:

He promised/ had promised to turn up at 4, but appeared at 9?

  • Stop worrying; both options are grammatical. – Peter Shor Mar 7 '14 at 15:04
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Chris Sunami's answer is correct but I think I can provide a picture to visualise the difference:

  1. He promised to turn up at 4, but appeared at 9

  2. He had promised to turn up at 4, but appeared at 9

In the first version, that uses simple past, both the promise and the failure to appear happen at an undetermined time in the past.

However, in the second version, using the past perfect, the promise and the failure to appear happen at two distinct times in the past. By using the past perfect we are spelling out that the promise takes place before the failure to attend.

One can use the second version if it is important to draw this distinction.

  • I don't see the difference. Promised is always past perfect. You cannot half promise something. Once you have promised it is done. And this will always happen before the promise is to be kept. So saying he had promised and then kept his promise is not really different than saying he promised and then kept his promise. – DisplayName Mar 7 '14 at 17:03
  • @DisplayName I'm afraid I failed to convey the picture :(. Your reasoning is correct. Whereas the first sentence doesn't spell the reasoning, the second one does. By using the past perfect we are spelling out that the promise takes places at a time in the past prior to the failure to keep the promise – Nico Mar 7 '14 at 17:11
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Neither is wrong. The only difference between simple past and past perfect is to describe the definite completion of an action. This is not such a distinction with event verbs.

With event verbs (i.e., verbs that implicitly have a definite completion to them, like "to promise" or "to start" or "to finish"), the difference is only one of additional emphasis.

In the given example, since "to promise" is an event verb - it has an implicit ending to the action - there isn't much of a technical distinction between the simple past (which is here describing an event that is already passed) and the past perfect (which is here describing the ending of an event in the past). The only difference is one of tone, with the past perfect serving to underline the completion of the event.

If we look at a non-event verb, we will see a difference. Let's rewrite the example sentence, using "to talk" instead of "to promise":

We talked/had talked about him turning up at 4, but he appeared at 9.

In this modification, the verb "to talk" is not an event verb; there is no implicit end with "to talk" like there is with "to promise". Here, the distinction between the simple perfect and the past perfect is greater. In the simple past case, the activity "to talk" is not demarcated as strongly as in the past perfect case. While both are in the past, since "to talk" is not implicitly an event, the simple past implies that this was a general activity of talking in the past; talking about the topic may have happened multiple times in the past, or may even resume in the future. In other words, the meaning of, "We talked about him turning up at 4," could hold the implied meaning that there were subsequent discussions with him after the one you describe (e.g., "... but later he wanted to change the time.")

In comparison, the past perfect describes a definite ending to that past activity, and no subsequent relevant discussion about the topic occurred since that time.

  • If I understand correctly, your answer argues that the sentence "We had talked about him turning up at 4, but he appeared at 9" excludes the possibility that we continued the conversation. And thus it wouldn't make sense to say "We had talked about him turning up at 4, we continued talking about him for a while and eventually he showed up at 9". This sentence doesn't sound wrong to me. – Nico Mar 7 '14 at 17:41
  • Your sentence could be technically correct if the point of conversation was somehow different between the first and second periods (ie, it was about a different topic, it was with other people, etc). However, if it was the same topic with the same people (your example), it wouldn't be appropriate to use past perfect, since the activity of talking had not actually concluded.You could write, "He and I had talked about him turning up at 4. While waiting, I talked about him for a while with my friends, and eventually he showed up at 9." (Here, the "we"s are clarified to show different audiences.) – SNLacy Mar 7 '14 at 17:54
  • "John and Mary had talked about Pete turning up at 4. They also talked about the possibility of Pete arriving at 9, which was the time he actually arrived at" Would this sentence be wrong? It sounds correct to my ear and it doesn't imply an interruption of the conversation, it only states that talking about Pete arriving at 9h happened after they had talked about arriving at 4h. – Nico Mar 7 '14 at 18:29
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They are both grammatical but have different meanings.

The simple past tense indicates the action happened before the time of speech:

         <-past        present
action                 speech

The past perfect indicates that the action happened before the time of reference which is before the time of speech

         <-past        present
action    reference    speech

If you are talking in the present tense (so that the time of reference is almost the same as the time of speech) there's hardly any difference in meaning, but if you are telling a story using the past tense then there is a crucial difference:

  • The simple past indicates that the action is happening at the time of the story you are telling.

  • The past perfect indicates the action happened before the time of the story

So the order of "He jumped. He promised. He slept." is

jumped    promised    slept

But the order of "He jumped. He had promised. He slept." is

promised               jumped   slept
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Neither option is wrong, there are just subtle differences between them. If you use had promised it gives more of a sense of a progression through time. That way of casting the sentence has more of a narrative flow, the other offers more of a direct contrast between what he promised and what he actually did.

  • As I outline in my answer. Promised is always past perfect. Otherwise you'd say promising. Promised is a finished, perfect action. Adding had to the sentence would just double up on the fact that the promise was, completed or made, in the past. – DisplayName Mar 7 '14 at 17:14
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I don't see the difference.

Promised is always past perfect. Perfect meaning, it's done. Unless you undo your promise. You could say:

While he was promising he was interrupted, forgot his promise and then arrived only at nine.

But that's not what you are trying to say here.

Once you have promised something, it is done. And this will always happen before the promise is to be kept.

So saying:

He had promised his promise and then kept or forgot his promise.

Is not really different than saying:

He promised his promise and then kept or forgot his promise.

I'd even say in this context the "had" is superfluous.

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