I've been reading about the difference between past simple and past perfect and I've found that when a series of events are narrated in order past simple is the one to be used. When the events aren't in order or when one is subsequent to another past perfect has to be used instead.

In the next examples which one should be used? "We (walk) around the garden for an hour then we (stop) for an ice cream." As these events are in order but one is subsequent to the other should I use past perfect in the first verb (had walked)? "After we (finish) eating the ice cream, we (buy) our tickets and (stand) in a long queue." In this case should it be past simple in the three verbs because the events are in order and reassemble a list?

  • Beyond the grammar, there is also what one wants to say. There may be a strong reason for using the PP or a weak one. Here's a strong one: When the alleged thief entered the house, did you see him? Compared to: When the alleged thief entered the house, had you seen him?
    – Lambie
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 23:14
  • @Lambie It might be helpful if you explained your examples in a bit more detail. Commented May 8, 2018 at 0:48
  • @linguistictum It's too much effort on the reference side. But in a court case or similar situation, it can make a difference.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 13:25
  • @Lambie No, I mean, just explain how the meaning is different in the two cases. No references needed... Commented May 8, 2018 at 13:32

1 Answer 1


Neither of the 'rules' you mentioned is an actual rule of English. While certainly there are lots of examples that seem to conform to these 'rules', there are also plently of examples that do not.

In the first place, it is not true that whenever one event is subsequent to another past event, the past perfect has to be used. Often (though not always), the past perfect is omissible.

Secondly, it is not true that if something resembles a list, the past perfect is not allowed.

There are many factors that influence whether the past perfect is mandatory vs optional vs unacceptable. I cannot hope here to present a discussion that would do justice to all the issues involved. However, I can reproduce a relevant passage from CGEL (p. 147):

Omissibility of the perfect

Under certain conditions the perfect may be omitted with little or no effect on the temporal interpretation. The construction to be considered here has the perfect in a subordinate clause following such prepositions as after, as soon as, or before:

[17]   i  She left after/as soon as/before he had spoken to her.            [perfect]
         ii  She left after/as soon as/before he spoke to her.               [non-perfect]

The temporal relation between her leaving and his speaking to her is effectively the same in [ii] as in [i], being indicated by the preposition. In [ii] we have a single Tr ['time referred to'] in the subordinate clause, identified perfectively as the time of his speaking. In [i] there is reference to two times, with Tr2 the time of his speaking and Tr1 an intermediate point to which Tr2 is anterior. But there is no significant gap between Tr2 and Tr1, so that it doesn't make any appreciable temporal difference whether the time of her leaving is specified in relation to one or the other.

The contrast between the perfect and non-perfect takes on more significance when Tsit ['time of situation'] is of relatively long duration, especially with as soon as and (to a lesser extent) before. Thus while the perfect is omissible in She left the country as soon as she had completed her thesis (with punctual Tsit), it is not omissible in She left the country as soon as she had written her thesis (where the thesis-writing situation is too long to be compared with the country-leaving one). Similarly She left the country before she had written her thesis allows (and indeed suggests) that she had started writing when she left and is thus not equivalent to She left the country before she wrote her thesis, which indicates that the leaving preceded the whole of the thesis writing.

The perfect is also omissible in the gerund-participial complement of certain catenative verbs such as regret: see §7 below.

As far as the 'rule' you cited concerning the past perfect and lists of events, it is not difficult to find attested counterexamples, like the following passage (from here):

After they had finished their discussion about what to do with the Peploe?, he had turned to a number of tasks, but had completed none. He had started a crossword, but failed to fill in more than a few clues and had abandoned it. He had then written a letter, but had stopped halfway through and announced that he would finish it the following day. Then he had begun to tidy his desk, but had suddenly decided that it was time for lunch and had disappeared to the Café St Honoré for a couple of hours.

  • That word omissibility bothers me. There's also speaker intention. It often depends on what a speaker wants to say and that can extend beyond a strictly grammatical understanding of the use of the PP.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 22:59
  • @Lambie But in [17], there really is no discernible difference between i and ii... is there? Commented May 8, 2018 at 0:51
  • Thanks for the explanation, so far this has been the most detailed one I've received in all the places where I asked this. Commented May 8, 2018 at 7:31
  • @Manamaster You're welcome... For many more details, see The Grammar of the English Tense System by R. Declerck... Commented May 8, 2018 at 13:48

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