As an English teacher, I often find students unclear about the use of the past perfect. It seems that this is sometimes optional if there is a time reference. I take both these sentences to be correct and mean the same:

Until I went to the Tower of London, I didn't believe in ghosts.

Until I went to the Tower of London, I hadn't believed in ghosts.

However, in these two examples, I don't believe they mean the same:

Until I went to London, I didn't eat sausages.

Until I went to London, I hadn't eaten sausages.

The first being a habitual act, or decision not to eat sausages; the second the absence of sausage eating during the speaker's lifetime, perhaps due to a lack of sausage-eating opportunities.

So, my questions are, can the past perfect be substituted by the past simple plus a time reference (or conjunction) only when a state verb is involved?

Are there any 'rules'(which time phrases or conjunctions can be used, for example)? I'm sure my students would be keen to know!

Many thanks.


  • I don't know whether anyone else agrees with me, but my instinct would be to use 'had not' with 'until', and 'did not' with 'before', so 'Before my visit to the Tower of London, I didn't believe in ghosts'. – Kate Bunting May 7 '18 at 7:29
  • But then 'Before I went to London, I didn't eat sausages regularly' and 'Until I went to London, I hadn't eaten sausages regularly' (I'm still thinking about Kate's suggestion, but I think she has a point) are back to being close if not exact synonyms. – Edwin Ashworth May 7 '18 at 8:18
  • @Edwin Ashworth It may depend on the nature of the verb. But it is difficult to think of one which cannot both be an habitual act, as well as a single action. Perhaps Before I went to London I didn't start/hadn't started shaving. Both are valid, but neither, to my mind, suggest that you may have started shaving and then stopped. – WS2 May 7 '18 at 9:09
  • Perhaps there needs to be an attempt at defining terms. What exactly is a stative usage? Most people would agree that 'He tasted the soup' shows a dynamic usage while 'Fennel tastes of aniseed' is a stative one. But what about differentiating 'He is a vegetarian' and 'He never eats meat'? Do we ignore semantics? – Edwin Ashworth May 7 '18 at 9:33
  • "The first being a habitual act, ..." -- is a mere conjecture. Grammar has not defined either way. So the Q itself is based on a conjecture which is not upheld by grammar. For more on "... only when a state verb is involved," see Fred Hockney below, esp., the first sentence. – Kris Dec 5 '18 at 7:18

It really has nothing to do with stative verbs. Stative verbs can't be put in the past perfect continuous without a change in meaning. The problem has to do with how the past perfect is a catch-all tense.

The purpose of the past perfect is to indicate a sequence of events. It offers clarity as to which of two events happened prior to the other event when both events happened in the past. With the exception of conditional statements, that's the extent of its purpose. We have the option to use the simple past with reference to both past events when the sequence of events is obvious from the sentence. This most commonly happens when we include time elements; however, we can still use the past perfect if we wish.

The problem is that we have no way of indicating the "tense granularity" of the event we have placed in the past perfect. This is not only a problem here, but also in direct/indirect speech and narrative tenses since both the simple past, the past perfect, and the present perfect all degrade in these cases to the past perfect.

In the case that we need to give more information, we have to make the sentence more robust or, more likely, provide additional context.

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  • 2
    I fully agree with your first sentence "It really has nothing to do with stative verbs". After that you've lost me. Your answer would greatly benefit from some examples. – WS2 May 7 '18 at 20:16
  • @WS2 I think the first sentence answers the question adequately. – Kris Dec 5 '18 at 7:19

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