Here's from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2.

within a month;

Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears

Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,

She married:

I'm wondering about "Had left". Is that the past perfect tense? It seems strange if that is the case, because she had married before the salt of her tears left the flushing.

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    ' ... she married before the salt of her tears left the flushing.' Isn't that the point (if perhaps hyperbolically stated)? Oct 16, 2014 at 22:54
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    Except this is before, not after: "He left before I had told him about the new car" is slightly problematic in Modern English.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 16, 2014 at 23:14
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    @Andrew Leach. The problem Quirk et al find with 'He left before I had told him about the new car' is that it is a paradoxical, not unacceptable, usage. See the quote below. Oct 16, 2014 at 23:21
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    @Edwin Exactly; but the question is about Shakespeare, whose grammar is now 400 years old. I believe it wasn't unknown for an irrealis to use a more "concrete" tense, especially since we're talking poetry here, with a metre into which thoughts must be shoe-horned.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 16, 2014 at 23:25
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    @EdwinAshworth What I meant was "the question is about Shakespeare's English" which is not what is used now, and a book rather less than 400 years old is only going to address current usage, not what Shakespeare might have meant by his sentence. However, I stand by comment about shoe-horning language into metre; that can also produce odd results.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 18, 2014 at 9:27

1 Answer 1


This problem is addressed in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language [Randolph Quirk et al. 1985, p 1020]:

The use of the past perfective in before-constructions requires special consideration.

These four sentences seem to be equivalent in meaning:

  1. I saw him before he saw me.

  2. I had seen him before he saw me.

13. I saw him before he had seen me.

  1. I had seen him before he had seen me.

Sentence 13 appears to be paradoxical in that the second in the succession of events is marked with the past perfective, contrary to what we have noted above in the after- and when-clauses. One explanation is that the before-clause in 13, and perhaps also in 14, may be nonfactual; that is to say, the event in the before-clause may not have taken place ('He did not get a chance to see me, because I evaded him').

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