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I'm working on a little project about a man who died in 1987. I know he wanted to marry a woman, but I don't know the period. I'm writing a letter to a relative of this woman who can help me. I want to ask her a question about when the man proposed, but I don't know which of the following phrasings is correct:

When had he proposed to her? In the 1970s or 1980s?

or

When did he propose to her? In the 1970s or 1980s?

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When had he (past perfect) accepts as a valid answer the point at which he asked and any point thereafter. I.e., if he proposed to her in 1990, then it is also true that he had proposed to her (by) 1991.

When did he (past) is better to pinpoint the exact point in time at which he proposed. It can also apply to periods of time, such as decades ("the 1970s").

Since did is more direct and simpler, I would recommend that construction.

  • Sorry again. Last question. Are there any mistakes? "I still don't understand if they were more than best friends? Did they have an affair?" – Nick Jul 30 '18 at 16:57
  • "I still don't understand, were they more than best friends? Did they have an affair?" – tidbertum Jul 30 '18 at 20:17
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Both right, with a little nuance as will be explained later.

When had he proposed to her? In the 1970s or 1980s?

is using the "pluperfect" or otherwise named "past perfect tense", ie., "he had proposed". Because this is interrogatory there's an inversion of "he" and "had", which is common.

pluperfect
formed in English by had and the past participle, as in he had gone by then
Oxford Living Dictionaries


Your other sentence:

When did he propose to her? In the 1970s or 1980s?

This is in the simple past tense: "he proposed to her". Though instead of a simple inversion in the question form, we use the auxiliary verb "did", and the verb changes to the infinitive form, ie., "did he propose?" rather than "did he proposed?".

As to whether pluperfect and simple past have different meanings, they do, but it's not always a distinctive difference. In this context I can't see much of a distinction. I think this is because the distinction of the pluperfect and past simple is one of denoting a continuing action versus a single act done once, and in this context "proposing" is taken as being a single action done once and not continuously.

However take the previous example sentence:

"He had gone overseas by then."
(uses the pluperfect, correct)

vs

"He went overseas by then."
(uses the simple past tense, nearly certainly incorrect).

This is because the act of "going overseas" in this context is taken as a single act, not a continuing one.

Something like "he went overseas" would imply something like he regularly went overseas.

So in other words there is a difference in the two tenses, but in some cases there's no or little distinction to be made, as in your case I think.

  • You really helped me! – Nick Jul 30 '18 at 16:38
  • Sorry again. Last question. Are there any mistakes? "I still don't understand if they were more than best friends? Did they have an affair?" – Nick Jul 30 '18 at 16:57
  • @Nick The exact details of the tenses are difficult for me to explain and even understand. So I'm sure there flaws in my explanation. In my opinion both your examples are fine to use, and any preference of one over the other will vary across different people and what is exactly intended. I don't know anything about having an affair, the question just asks whether a guy proposed marriage in the 70s or 80s. – Zebrafish Jul 30 '18 at 17:03
  • lol @Zebrafish he meant if you would copy edit (the content in quotes). this response it gold :D – tidbertum Jul 30 '18 at 20:18

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