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Mike ( had broken | broke ) his mother's vase last night but he has not told her yet.

Question: Some argue it must use "broke" instead of "had broken" because "last night" could not be used with past perfect tense. I notice some teachers preach a grammar rule: Adverb like "last night, last year, a few days ago" should not be used with past perfect tense; It should use past tense. But I never find any formal grammar books make that statement. Instead, I think it is quite a "weak grammar rule" which is often "violated" in some writings. I have quite often seen sentences like "He had taken the test last year." and similar ones in popular novels, news papers and magazines.

I think "had broken" is a better answer here as it make the sentence more cohesive in meaning and logic, even though "broke" is ok too, at least grammatically.

Maybe only in cases for a specific time point like "at 8 o'clock", we might have to use past tense. e.g, He broke the vase at 8 pm last night.

Please enlighten me on this if my understanding is not right or there is some grammar rules prevailing here which I am not aware of.

Your advise are appreciated very much!

marked as duplicate by user140086, NVZ, curiousdannii, tchrist, Ste Jun 14 '16 at 14:52

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    No, not the same. – user2376256 Jun 2 '16 at 11:25
  • You're right the two questions are not the same. The older question relates to a form of ‘gentle’ or ‘discreet’ politeness that is, or used to be, common in BrEng. – Mari-Lou A Jun 13 '16 at 20:47
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I am not aware of any rule restricting the use of time-related adverbs with the past perfect.  I believe that the following are examples of grammatically correct sentences:

  • Mike had broken his neighbor’s window yesterday afternoon, so he went back after sunset to retrieve his baseball.
  • John hadn’t gone out on a date for the past two years; then, this February, he met Mary.

See also this answer, where Henry offers

I was tired because I hadn’t slept the previous night.

as an example of a valid sentence.

But even if we delete “last night” from your sentence (and add the missing comma):

Mike had broken his mother’s vase, but he has not told her yet.

… I would feel uncomfortable about it, because of the juxtaposition of past perfect and present perfect without any use of the plain past.  (Compare to the first three examples, which juxtapose past perfect with past.)  As stated in this answer:

You use past perfect only if you are locating an action at some time before a specific event in the past…

… and I don’t see any “specific event in the past” that happened after the incident with the vase.

And, in case it’s not clear, I don’t see anything wrong with

Mike broke his mother’s vase last night, but he has not told her yet.

(except for the ethics issue, of course), and I don’t see any significant difference in meaning between this and the version with the past perfect.

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I'm pretty shaky on the formal grammar, but think of it this way: If you say "had broken" then you are setting the sentence at some point in the past, in between the vase being broken and now. But later on, you say "last night" and "he has not told her yet", both of which sets the sentence in the present. So, the different parts of the sentence are in different tenses.

You could set the whole sentence in the past, and say

Mike had broken his mother's vase the night before, but he had not told her yet.

or you could set it in the present, and say

Mike broke his mother's vase last night but he has not told her yet.

  • Both ""had broken" and "broke" set the action "break" in the past. "broke" emphasizes actions happened during that time while "had broken" emphasizes actions had happened during that time. The main sentences are both in present tense. [ Mike had broken his mother's vase the night before, but he had not told her yet.] It does not tell whether he tells her now or not. Its meaning is different form the original one. It has the same meaning as : Mike had broken his mother's vase last night, but he had not told her yet. – user2376256 Jun 3 '16 at 1:06
  • @user23...: You say «"broke" emphasizes actions happened during that time while "had broken" emphasizes actions had happened during that time.» (emphasis added).  So you’re using the past and the past perfect to define the past and the past perfect.  Seems circular to me.  You say «The main sentences are both in present tense.»  If you’re referring to the two versions of you sentences, I disagree.  Your two sentences each contain two independent clauses (remember that “but” is grammatically equivalent to “and”) where the second clause is in the present tense and the first is not. – Scott Jun 10 '16 at 21:35

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