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  1. When I was in New York, I visited the Statue of Liberty.

  2. When I was in New York, I had visited the Statue of Liberty.

  • What is the meaning of sentence 2? Is it the same as sentence 1?
  • Does it mean that I visited the Statue of Liberty before staying in New York? Or is it simply ungrammatical?

The answer to my previous question suggests that the past perfect with a when-clause referring to a time interval is appropriate in the following:

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!

In this example, the time reference is his friend asking about Spartacus. The past perfect is used because his seeing the movie (the point of event) is anterior to the point of reference. Here the when-clause only works as a supplement.

In this question, I'd like to ask:

  • How is the past perfect interpreted when it is used with a when-clause referring to a time interval without any other specific time of reference.

More specifically,

  • a) Can the past perfect be interpreted as the simple past (i.e. sentence 2 has the same meaning as sentence 1)?

  • b) Can the starting point of the interval (the time when I arrived in NY) be interpreted as the point of reference (I visited the Statue of Liberty in my previous stay in NY)?

I've been thinking about these possibilities since I read 5.4 Non-present perfects in CGEL, which I quoted in my previous question. In it there are two examples:

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

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

And these two are considered to have the same meaning.

  • 1
    It doesn't sound too good as it is. 2') 'When I visited New York last autumn, I had already visited the Statue of Liberty in the spring, so I gave it a miss.' sounds better. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 29 '17 at 13:32
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    I'd say it's clumsy-to-ungrammatical here. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 29 '17 at 13:44
  • 1
    A period prior to the other period / point mentioned. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 29 '17 at 14:37
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  • 2
    You've answered your own question in the body. In your example about Spartacus, the time reference justifying the use of the past perfect is in a different sentence. So, using the past perfect in the Statue of Liberty example implies that there is another sentence (before or after) that says what happened later. Without that other sentence, readers get a feeling that you've taken the sentence out of context. – Spencer Aug 6 '17 at 15:37
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From my reading (I am not a linguist or even a serious student of English), I came to understand that one uses the past perfect only when there is something else related in time (that's a clumsy construction compared to your elegant one.) So,

How is the past perfect interpreted when it is used with a when-clause referring to a time interval without any other specific time of reference.

It's not used in those cases by native English speakers. It sounds like something is missing. It sounds awkward. Without any other specific time referred to, it would be regarded as either a) an unfinished thought or b) the past tense expressed in a slightly awkward manner, or c) an affectation (trying - and failing - to speak in a more ???educated manner) or d) other.

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

This is not correct either. It's not a separate time, it's the same time, just a longer time interval. It sounds like an unfinished sentence,

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

Better:

When he went to open the door (<- the separate time), he realized he had lost his keys while he was running home.

That's not awkward. it sounds natural and correct to me, though many people might express it less formally in speech (I speak much less formally than I write.) So, less formally, but less technically "correct",

Once he got home, he realized he lost his keys.

This is the best answer I can give. The linguists and grammarians can give better answers than I can.

  • @Aki it is unfair and improper to ask users to answer questions that are prompted by comments. If anongoodnurse wishes, she can reply in the comments, but mods (and many in the community) frown on using comments this way. – Mari-Lou A Aug 8 '17 at 7:03
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The reason the two examples from the previous question mean the same thing is because their use would depend on context.

  1. He felt like running, and he lost his key while he was running home.

  2. He felt like running, but he had lost his key while he was running home.

In (1), the consistent use of simple past implies that he felt like running, and then went running and lost his key. In (2), the use of past perfect suggests that he wanted to go running, but he couldn't because he had lost his key when he was running home earlier.

In other words, the example phrases by themselves both mean that the key was lost while running home, but whether that action is best described using past simple or past perfect depends on what that action is being compared to.

Similarly, in the New York example, the use of simple past is perfectly acceptable.

When I was in New York, I visited the Statue of Liberty.

You might choose to use past perfect if you were indicating that you had seen the Statue of Liberty earlier than something else that happened in the past: For example, being shown a picture of the statue.

She asked me to look at her pictures of the Statue of Liberty, but I had visited the Statue of Liberty when I was in New York.

or

She asked me to look at her pictures of the Statue of Liberty, but when I was in New York, I had visited the Statue of Liberty.

As with the case of the keys, in both constructions there is an implication that you saw the Statue of Liberty at the time you were in New York, but the use of past simple or past perfect helps place that action in the context of some other action.

  • Then it is what Swan describes as tense simplification. In PEU, he says "simple past verb forms are used quite often in subordinate clauses instead of present perfect and past perfect, if the meaning is clear." One of the examle sentences there is "He had probably crashed because he had gone to sleep while he was driving.", which is followed by his comment "more natural than "while he had been driving." So, (iib) is the simplified sentense of "He had lost his key while he had been running home." What do you think? – Aki Aug 8 '17 at 5:43
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When would you use 2)? Suppose you tell about your visit to New York, and mention two different events during that visit. Then you could use "had visited" for the first event, and simple past for the second event.

When I was in New York, I had visited the Statue of Liberty before I broke my leg.

  • 3
    This radically changes the question from the one OP has given. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 29 '17 at 13:45

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