If a book is written in past tense, how do you describe something which was in the past?

For example:

I was waiting in the back of the line because I "punched" the son of the principal.

The verb "punch" happened in the past of the past. Should I use past perfect tense here just like in German language?

  • When speaking in a past tense, to refer to something even further into the past requires the pluperfect tense. That sentence would be: "I was waiting in the back of the line because I had punched the son of the principal. " Sep 12, 2019 at 0:01
  • German is the weakest of my languages, but I would have thought it would be similar: denn ich Felix gehaut hatte (where Felix is the son of the principal -- I didn't want to get tied up in knots translating "principal's son" and struggling to get the right case). Sep 12, 2019 at 5:02
  • The past perfect is preferable, but not essential. The ordinary preterite "punched" should not cause any ambiguity, since it's clear that my punching the son of the principal was the reason I was waiting at the back of the line.
    – BillJ
    Sep 12, 2019 at 9:21
  • This question belongs on English Language Learners
    – Kris
    Sep 12, 2019 at 12:28

2 Answers 2


You need the past perfect (also called the pluperfect) tense:

I was waiting in the back of the line because I had punched the son of the principal.

The past perfect tense indicates an action that was completed at some point in the past before something else happened.

If you search for "past perfect tense" you will find plenty of examples online.

(By the way, in BrE we would say "at the back of the line", unless you mean you were near the back of the line, among other people. And we would call it a queue, not a line.)

  • 1
    Waiting "in" the back of the line sounds odd in America, too.
    – tchrist
    Sep 12, 2019 at 2:39
  • 1
    @tchrist - Let's not nitpick. The main thing here is the tense. And anyway, it sounds reasonable to me. Maybe what was meant was "I was waiting at the tail end of the line." Sep 12, 2019 at 5:00

It depends on the context.

The past perfect can be used to show that one event occurred before another event occurred and finished:

I was waiting at the back of the line because I had punched the son of the principal.

If the order of events is clear, we can just use the simple past tense:

I was sent to (wait at) the back of the line because I punched the principal's son.

The before makes clear the order of events, so it becomes optional. British English pulls stronger than American English toward considering the perfect aspect as required or better. Using the perfect also tends to be more formal.

(The son of the principal is also ok, but 's would probably be more common, depending on context and other factors.)

Other examples of finished past events that occurred before other past events styled without use of perfect forms:

He brushed his teeth and went to bed.

She killed her kids and went to prison.

The choices we use depend on many factors, including register.

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