Today I read the following description of preterite perfect in The Cambridge Grammar of English Language.

The distinction between the present perfect and the simple preterite is neutralized elsewhere in the verbal system, so that when have carries any other inflection than the present tense the perfect may correspond to either a present perfect or a simple preterite. Compare, for example:

i(a) He has lost his key so he can't get in his room.

i(b) He had lost his key so he couldn't get in his room.

i(c) He seems to have lost his key so he can't get in his room.

ii(a) He lost his key while he was running home.

ii(b) He had lost his key while he was running home.

ii(c) He seems to have lost his key while he was running home,

In [i] the non-present perfects had lost and have lost correspond to present perfect has lost, while in [ii] they correspond to the simple preterite lost.

Then, can i(b) and ii(b) be rephrased as i(b') and ii(b') below respectively?

i(b') He has lost his key so he couldn't get in his room.

ii(b') He lost his key while he was running home.

And this is my main question. Is the following sentence grammatical?

(1) When I lived in Berlin, I had seen the movie three times.

I thought had seen should be replaced by saw to make it acceptable.

  • Unless you saw the movie three times before you moved to Berlin ... May 13, 2017 at 16:17
  • Do you intend it to mean: “While living in Berlin, I saw the movie three times” or “I had seen the movie three times by that point in my life when I was living in Berlin.”.
    – Jim
    May 13, 2017 at 16:18
  • @Jim It's debatable whether time spent living in a city is describable as punctive. May 13, 2017 at 16:24
  • @EdwinAshworth - Agreed. it’s on the edge. Does it change in your view if we add only? “... I had only seen the movie three times.”
    – Jim
    May 13, 2017 at 16:31
  • 1
    @Jim Yes, it doesn't grate as much. Crazy language. May 13, 2017 at 16:37

1 Answer 1


You are quite right to think that using the simple past tense as in "when I lived in Berlin, I saw the movie thrice" is the simplest construction, if the sentence is to be taken in isolation. However, using the past perfect in your original example "when I lived in Berlin, I had seen the film thrice" is not incorrect, because 'when I lived in Berlin' is not meant here as a temporally isolated event, but refers to a certain period of time ('in the days when I was living in Berlin') and therefore past perfect is acceptable in 'I had seen the movie thrice'; it may even be more appropriate, depending on the context, as I shall illustrate below.

Past perfect tense is usually used to place an event in time-context, usually as having occurred 'before' some more recent event or a specified point in time, as in

I reached the station at 5pm, but the train had left 5 minutes earlier.

We had invited the Smiths to the party, but they could not make it.

So the use of past perfect in "when I lived in Berlin, I had seen the movie three times" can very well be more appropriate in the right context relative to the sentences that precede and / or succeed it, and also if you were to use it as a clause within a longer sentence, such as (for example)

My friend asked me about the movie 'Spartacus'. When I lived in Berlin, I had seen the movie thrice. So I could tell him that it was very good!

They invited me to see the movie 'Spartacus', but when I lived in Berlin, I had seen the movie three times, so I politely declined the invitation.

  • Within a context, yes. But can the sentence be judged grammatical or ungrammatical without context? This question comes up with many other sentences.
    – Zan700
    Nov 26, 2017 at 2:29
  • 1
    Yes indeed @Zan700. The past perfect tense usually struggles to stand as either grammatical or ungrammatical without context because past perfect is meant to explicitly reference some point of time or event which is what provides context. If no context is forthcoming then simple past tense might be the better choice, as I indicated at the start of my answer. Nov 26, 2017 at 2:58
  • I have often seen the past perfect tense used in literature to reference past events or recollection of past events @Zan700. Again the context is usually explicit. Example: "He felt a wave of nostalgia when he saw a framed poster of Spartacus in a friend's house. His mind went back to younger, carefree days. When he lived in Berlin he had seen the film thrice." If neither the specific sentence nor the preceding sentences provide context, past perfect may be an inappropriate choice of tense. Can you think of any situation where past perfect is used first and the time context is stated after? Nov 26, 2017 at 3:15
  • He had just eaten dinner when the clock struck twelve.
    – Zan700
    Nov 27, 2017 at 23:48
  • Thanks for reminding me how past perfect can be used at the beginning of a sentence @Zan700! I recently learned that OP had asked a follow up question closely related to this one, a few months later: What is the meaning of: "When I was in New York, I had visited the Statue of Liberty"? The angle of that question is apparently slightly different from this one, and it has attracted a few good answers. Nov 28, 2017 at 11:52

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