I found this sentence:

Before he became a writer , Conan Doyle studied medicine, and much of the character is taken from...

However, according to the article (please, see below) - I would say that there should be past perfect instead of past simple. What do you think? Is it the same construction which calls for past the perfect only?

Thank you very much :)

If the Past Perfect is not referring to an action at a specific time, Past Perfect is not optional. Compare the examples below. Here Past Perfect is referring to a lack of experience rather than an action at a specific time. For this reason, Simple Past cannot be used.


She never saw a bear before she moved to Alaska. Not Correct

She had never seen a bear before she moved to Alaska. Correct

  • 3
    Though I would use the pluperfect, I think that many speakers omit it where it is not necessary for comprehension. – Anonym Dec 17 '15 at 21:56
  • Whether to use the past or the pluperfect is the same decision as whether to use the present or the simpt. – WS2 Dec 17 '15 at 22:01
  • I think your "article" is being a bit prescriptivist.. – Hot Licks Dec 17 '15 at 22:17
  • What @Anonym said. It's perfectly normal to use a simpler tense if it doesn't affect the meaning that will be understood. Particularly, in context, and since the word before here spells out the chronology, there's no need to labour the point with an unnecessarily complex verb form. – FumbleFingers Dec 17 '15 at 22:17
  • That does not represent how English actually works. We do not use complex verb constructions whose meaning is already apparent. – tchrist Dec 17 '15 at 23:27

The "rules" given at englishpage.com, where you seem to have found this, cannot be trusted to be consistently valid.

The version of your example using the simple past is not only unobjectionable in itself, it may in some contexts be preferable to the version with the past perfect.

To lend authenticity to her stories Karen visited Yellowstone in 1982 and the Smokies in 1983; but she never saw a bear before she moved to Alaska in 1989, and her 1985 volume was criticized by experts in bear behavior.

A perfect relates the event it mentions to the Reference Time of the surrounding discourse. In the sentence I give above the RT moves forward with the narrative but does not arrive at a standpoint from which had never seen a bear before . . . 1989 would be appropriate.


Past perfect refers to time past preceding a fixed past reference point. In your example, the reference point is when she moved to Alaska. Before that, she and bears were unacquainted; after her move, not so much. The simple past refers to any time in the past, which is why it conflicts with the excluded part of the past (namely after the move) in which she saw bears.

If would be perfectly reasonable to have a parallel statement about Sir ACD

Before he became a writer, Conan Doyle had studied medicine,....

He studied medicine before he became a writer and stopped after he became a writer. But nothing precludes his having continued to study medicine after he became a writer so

Before he became a writer, Conan Doyle studied medicine,....

presents no conflict.

  • I think your last example does strongly the study ended at or before the time Conan Doyle became a writer. You'd need a much stronger "forcing context" to make any sense of continuation apply, such as Before I lived in France I spoke French - and even that would be better recast as I spoke French before I [even] lived in France. – FumbleFingers Dec 17 '15 at 22:24
  • @FumbleFingers I think you're right, but it's semantic consideration: why would I mention a past interval of study before the past reference point but refrain from mentioning study afterwards? I'm merely pointing out that the tense isn't in conflict the way it seems with the "never before" construction. – deadrat Dec 17 '15 at 22:52

"Had studied" is strong on the meaning that you have done something in your life... have seen a bear in your life, have done skydiving, etc. In other words, it doesn't have that 'daily consistency' of doing something repeatedly as an ongoing activity or effort over time (it doesn't have the sense of 'volume,' as it were). But for 'studying', you want to convey this sense of ongoing activity that you do over a significant period of time. That is why the simple past form is used there, because it can be used to convey this sense for time in the past (compare to the simple present tense: "I study medicine.") Had the past perfect form been used instead, it would have had the (greater) meaning (because of the natural way in which perfect forms work) he just had had the experience of 'studying' (medicine) - which is not what you want to convey in that particular sentence.

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