I'm not a native English speaker and I find English quite difficult and confusing and one of the reasons is because of its tenses—which I find challenging and rewarding once everything becomes clear—so I would like to ask which of these two are correct:

  1. I thought we talked about this before
  2. I thought we had talked about this before

I've read somewhere that I should use the past perfect tense to indicate past action that occurred prior to another past action, and Past perfect verbs are always formed by using adding ‘had’ before the past participle form of the verb.

E.g. had + talked

In the examples above, "thought" and "talked" are both past actions, but "talked" happened before "thought", so my guess is that sentence no. 2 is the correct one, but I'm not so sure because sentence no. 1 is used most of the time in movies and conversation.

What are your thoughts about this?

marked as duplicate by user140086, Robusto, Mitch, Mari-Lou A, tchrist Nov 4 '15 at 1:48

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • Welcome to EL&U. You can search with "past/past perfect or whatever tense you like" and get a bunch of excellent answers. – user140086 Nov 3 '15 at 12:34
  • Hey, even native English speakers find the English language difficult. Too many rules and exceptions to rules. Plus one for you, for hanging in there. By the way, your question is well phrased. Many English speakers would have difficulty phrasing your question as well as you did. Don – rhetorician Nov 3 '15 at 13:42
  • @Rathony vote against duplicate, this is not about a niche example of native speakers in some regions using the past perfect in an expression, but a general question about whether to use PS or PP, and the other question confuses rather than gives clarity to the issue. – Some_Guy Nov 3 '15 at 14:08
  • @Some_Guy This kind of question has been asked many times and I might have chosen the wrong duplicate. That's why I encouraged him to search more with key words that contain tenses. They have to make an effort first to see whether their question has an answer by searching here. If they still have doubts, they can post a question. That seems to be the way this site is being managed. If he had a better context, I would not have closevoted it. Regarding the context, please see my comment below the answer. – user140086 Nov 3 '15 at 14:25
  • @Rathony I'm looking at the question which you linked, and it isn't a duplicate of that. I believe the question was asked in good faith, and it's very demotivating to get a question closed whilst being linked to something is only tangentially related to your question. – Some_Guy Nov 3 '15 at 14:29

As is so often the case, the context in which something is said is the main determiner of which tense is appropriate. Correctness of tense may be important, but not nearly as important as being understood, n'est-ce pas?

For example, if two people are conversing, and one person brings up a subject unnecessarily (at least in the opinion of the other person), the person who objects to the repetition might say,

I thought we talked about this before.

Meaning: Why are you bringing this up again? We talked about ___________ before.

On the other hand, imagine the same two people conversing, and one of them, in looking back on an incident which occurred, say, a day ago, says

I thought we had talked about this before.

If the context of this remark is such that the speaker is considering some past action of his and is telling another person what he was thinking of at that particular time, then the meaning of the words would be slightly different.

In other words, he is looking back and referring to an action which had already been completed. This context is slightly different from the context in which the speaker is simply referring in the present to something which has already been done. No qualifying verb such as "had talked" would then be needed.

It's a slippery concept, to be sure, and one which even native speakers do not always grasp. However, the shades and nuances of meaning can be important when precision in communication is needed. In normal, everyday conversation, though, such precision is not usually that important.

  • I would rather say "I think we talked about this before" when two people are conversing at this moment. You don't even have to use "I thought". I think the context was a bit misleading. (I don't say, "I thought the context was misleading"). – user140086 Nov 3 '15 at 14:18
  • @Rathony: Good point! We Yanks do tend at times to overcomplicate things! Don – rhetorician Nov 3 '15 at 14:30
  • Thanks a lot for your help and explanation rhetorician, now I'm quite getting it, still need more practice :) – Francois Nov 3 '15 at 14:53
  • Thanks too Rathony, that was brief yet crystal clear explanation :) – Francois Nov 3 '15 at 15:22
  • Oh by the way Rathony, why did you say "I think the context was a bit misleading. (I don't say, "I thought the context was misleading")" instead of "I think the context IS a bit misleading. (I DIDN'T say, "I thought the context was misleading") – Francois Nov 3 '15 at 15:25

It depends on the context.

1) Past perfect is used to set the time of an event before a previously mentioned past time (or a past time that is clearly implied to all speakers)

2) Past simple is used simply to place an event before the present.

So, for the first case:

I know we talked about it earlier, but I thought we had talked about it before.

Because the second talk precedes a previous, also in the past, event.


Why did you bring that up this morning? I thought we had talked about it before.

Because the talk precedes a defined time of "this morning"

For the second case:

Do we have to talk about this now? I think we talked about it earlier.

In this case the second talk precedes the present, so past simple is used.

I hope this helps :)

Notice how it is rarely "wrong" to use past simple when a past perfect could be used, because after all both events are still in the past. However, past perfect adds clarity and is a very useful tool.

It is always wrong to use past perfect when you should use past simple. "I'm tired because I had gone to bed late last night" is wrong, because you are tired now.

I hope this helps :)

  • Thanks Some_Guy for sharing your thoughts about this. You helped me and those people who are confused about this as well :) Merci beaucoup monsieur! – Francois Nov 3 '15 at 14:49
  • @Francois no problem. What was the context you had in mind here? As rathony said, "I think" will probably be more appropriate if you're talking in the present. Also, bear in mind past perfect is, in most cases, optional, but a really useful way of framing situations if you get to grips with it :) – Some_Guy Nov 3 '15 at 14:59

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