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As a non-native speaker but a teacher of the English language I've come across the following question reading a pupil's report: Should she use the simple past or past perfect in her sentence?

Last week we came back from a class trip to New York. We planned (OR) had planned that trip half a year ago.
(meaning: half a year before NOW)

Although we teach that ago is a signal word for simple past, I would go for past perfect here, since the action of the second sentence clearly takes place before the first one and before the rest of what the report is about (the class trip itself).

How would a native speaker put it?

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    Either way works fine. – Brian Donovan Oct 31 '15 at 23:34
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    If I'm using the past perfect, something special is happening. If I were to say "we had planned that trip half a year ago," I almost feel like I would have to add something like "but it was delayed for all that time because..." or I might say it in response to a question where the specific time had to be amplified. – Matt Samuel Nov 1 '15 at 5:52
  • Normally when you're using a time indicator such as "ago," "earlier," "before," "in the old days," etc, you don't need to complicated it further with the past perfect. – Ricky Nov 1 '15 at 6:00
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    I don't believe that native English speakers think in terms of signal words; "ago" means "before the present time" (unlike "before", which can mean "before the time under discussion"), which makes it quite difficult to come up with a sentence where you could use the past perfect rather than the present. But your student has found one! (Note that either past or past perfect is grammatical here, although I think the past perfect is slightly better.) – Peter Shor Nov 1 '15 at 10:24
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In general I agree that using ago implies that the simple past would work better. In this case, however, the simple past doesn't provide the obvious and relevant connection/link between the two sentences that had planned offers.

If it were me, I would use had planned (for its link to the previous sentence) but replace ago with prior to avoid any subtle semantic imperfections. (Edit: Except you stated that the semantic intent was half a year before "now"... So this suggestion is less useful.)

With that said, neither example is particularly offensive, and I doubt that other native English speakers would have strong opinions either way if they encountered either example in real life.

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Native [British English] speaker here. I would never use 'ago' with the past perfect as it is relative to the present, not the past. As has been mentioned, you should use 'prior' or 'before' (or 'preceding' if you prefer something more formal) to indicate a point or amount of time before a time in the past.

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