I'm having a bit of trouble understanding certain aspects of the past perfect tense.

So my premise is, it deals with events that happened in the past at different times.

One event is in past perfect, the other, more close to the present event, in the past simple.

If that is correct, then how does this phrase work? (It's used in testing)

Many students only find out in their first year of college that certain high school courses they hadn't paid much attention to are actually critical to their academic success.

I'm not seeing any verb in the past simple tense. I see the "hadn't" aka the past perfect. So this confuses me.

The students did not pay attention in the past -> after that line I was expecting another event/action, still in the past, but a bit more towards the present.

'Most students only find out...' doesn't look like past to me.

  • This is a great question. Past perfect is a very natural tense for native English speakers to use for it (although we could also use didn't pay much attention to), and there doesn't seem to be any intermediate event, contradicting everything you've been taught in ESL classes. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 12:02

2 Answers 2


The more recent time that the past perfect tense is being contrasted with is "their first year of college".

The event more recent event doesn't have to be described using a past simple verb, and in this case the verb is actually omitted and implied. It could have been written

They hadn't paid much attention to some classes before they entered their first year of college and found out how critical they are to their academic success.


Here there is an implications of an incident that took place in the past. 'The students only find(1) out now (means after they became(2)/have become first year college students) that certain high school courses they hadn't paid(3) much attention to...' [(1) Present (2) Past (3) Past Perfect)]

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