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In a book these two forms are acceptable:

Before a complete version of Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women appeared in 1880, the book had been published in two separate volumes.

AND

Before a complete version of Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women appeared in 1880, the book was published in two separate volumes.

I do not quite understand why both are acceptable. However I decided to just follow it. So I started working on other problems for practice and this is where all the confusion stems from.

By the time Pearl S. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, she was a best-selling author in the United States for nearly a decade.

So using the general rule for Past Perfect, I said had been. And that, it turns out, is correct. However, since I was bored, I thought: Why cannot it be was? Since the rule provided above accepts either the Simple Past or Past Perfect?

So, is there anyone who can confirm why, for the first example both the Simple Past & Past Perfect can be used without error? And also, why when we come to the second example "was" does not work?

Thank you for your help.

  • 1
    In the last example, you use a simple past to describe something that took place over a continuous period (was...for nearly a decade) and was still going on by the time the "main" event happened (was awarded). Normally, you can't use a simple past for this. In your first example, there is less of a notion of a continuous period up to the main event. That is my preliminary explanation of the apparent discrepancy. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jun 9 '15 at 21:19
  • In your second exmpla – Daniel Jun 9 '15 at 21:27
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In the first example you give, both had been and was could be used, but they mean slightly different things.

Before I was a teacher I was a student. The implied suggestion here is that I was a student immediately before I became a teacher, or at least my having been a student had something to do with my becoming a teacher.

Before I was a teacher I had been a student. There is no suggestion here that my being a student had immediately preceded my being a teacher, nor had anything to do with it.

In the second example you could use the simple past, provided you dropped the words 'for nearly a decade'. In such a by the time expression it is not idiomatic to use a continuous past tense where you relate it to a specific time period.

By the time he awoke I had been working for two hours; is idiomatic.

By the time he awoke I was working; is idiomatic.

By the time he awoke I was working for two hours; is NOT idiomatic.

I think if you study those examples carefully you will understand why. 'The time he awoke' is a fixed moment - and I cannot be doing something continuously for two hours at a fixed moment.

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  • I still do not understand what you said at the end. What do you mean by a fixed moment? – Asker123 Jun 10 '15 at 14:20

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