Recently, I came across this sentence "Before I'd had a chance to look at the letter, my sister ran up and pulled them out of my hand!" (it's in the book "destination B1 grammar & vocabulary with answer key" unit 5 exercise F)

  • The word "Before" mean "my sister ran up" happened before "I'd had a chance"

  • But the tense told me the opposite. Because "I'd had a chance" is in past perfect tense, so it must happened before "my sister ran up".

could you explain me why they use tense like that. and can I just use past simple tense in both parts of this sentence?

  • I don't think most native speakers would notice a distinction between "Before I had a chance" and "Before I'd had a chance". – Barmar Aug 17 '17 at 2:57
  • When they speak, some trivial things will be ignore. But I want to know for writing purpose. – Ssupermeo Aug 17 '17 at 3:43
  • People will write this in either way. The distinction is extremely minor, I"m not even sure how to describe it. – Barmar Aug 17 '17 at 3:45

You are right that the past perfect is generally used to refer to an action that took place before the current point in a narrative about the past. For example:

By the time that I arrived at the station, the train had already left.

However, in time clauses with before it is indeed possible to use the past perfect to refer to an action that took place after the current point.

Swan in Practical English Usage (p100) has the sentence:

He went out before I had finished my sentence. (= before the moment when I had completed my sentence.)

He continues:

Note that in sentences like the last, a past perfect tense can refer to a time later than the action of the main verb. This is unusual.

This ngram (before I had a chance, before I'd had a chance) is evidence for Swan's contention that the past perfect tense in the before-clause is unusual. Nevertheless, it is easy to find numerous authentic examples via Google search (and see the Cambridge Grammar of English example below):

It was over before I'd had a chance to tell him enough times how much we cared.

It caused the cows to quit the feed before I'd had a chance to see all the calves

Before I'd had a chance to DJ, I was playing live sets with my sampling keyboard

I was already in love with this beer before I'd had a taste.

Before I'd had lessons with Wendy I had no confidence driving.

He threw out new ideas before I'd had time to absorb his previous ones.

As to your second question, you can indeed use the past simple in both clauses. As Parrott in Grammar for English Language Teachers (p389) states in his section on Tense and time conjunctions:

After and before contain precise information about the sequence of events and so we don't need to rely on the tenses to provide this information. We can use the past simple tense in both clauses.

  • Your daughter left before you woke up.

The Cambridge Grammar of English (p60) provides a reason, why the past perfect (as opposed to the simple past) may nevertheless be preferred:

  • He died in hospital. And before he'd gone into hospital, he kept saying to my mother ... .

The perfect aspect versions stress the completion of the event in the before-clause and a break in time between the events in the two clauses. The present simple or past simple suggest a closer connection between the two clauses.

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