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How would using past perfect in a 'by the time' clause affect the meaning differently from using the common formula (past simple in the 'by the time clause' plus past perfect in the main clause). For example, what could the following mean?

By the time he had finished dinner, it was time for bed.

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Firstly, I didn't know that what I've always called "pluperfect" is now usually called "past perfect", so thank you for highlighting that for me.

My understanding of the question is that you are examining the difference between these two sentences:

  1. "By the time he had finished dinner, it was time for bed."
  2. "By the time he finished dinner, it was time for bed."

I would say that there is very little difference between the two. I would infer a little more finality from the first one, in that dinner was definitely over and done with, and that he had left the table. The second would suggest to me that he had just finished eating. Hence, I would say that the past perfect version implies more completeness to the activity than the second. But as I said, the difference feels minuscule to me.

It's an interesting question though and, like WS2, I'd be interested to read other people's take on this.

  • You are not the only one who thinks of the so-called "past-perfect" as "the pluperfect"! – WS2 Oct 22 '18 at 7:00
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The past perfect is used to talk about the order of events in the past. Your sentence means that in the past, he finished dinner and that when he finished dinner it was time for bed. Maybe it took him 3 hours to eat dinner and he finished at 11pm. The fist event is eating dinner, the second is bed time.

If you say "by the time he finished dinner it was time for bed," the idea of past order isn't really there as much.

The difference in meaning is minuscule. Using "by the time" just introduces another time phrase in the sentence. You could just as well say "when he..."

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Are you asking what is the difference in meaning between the two following sentences?

1)'By the time he had finished dinner, it was time for bed.

2) 'By the time he finished dinner, it had been time for bed'

There is a third possibility and that is to use the past perfect in both clauses.

3) By the time he had finished dinner, it had been time for bed.

There probably isn't much difference in meaning between any of them. If I was speaking about last night, I think I would use the first. But were I talking about something that happened a year ago, I think I would use the third.

I can't think of circumstances in which I would use the second. But this is a matter on which I feel very open to others' opinions.

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