I always thought when a person is speaking of two past events, they should use the Past Perfect tense for the earlier event. Like this:

"I had been explaining (Past Perfect) this rule to you for half a lesson before/when I gave (Past Simple) a test"

But recently I've come across this sentence:

"They were married for a few years before divorcing in 2016"

Evidently it's about two events, and one past event (married for a few years) precedes the other past event (the divorce in 2016).

Why is it incorrect to say "They had been married for a few years"?

Why is it correct to use Past Perfect in one example and it's not correct to use it in the other one? What is the rule of thumb here?

  • 1
    They were married is not a passive, and it doesn't report an event. It's a stative predicate adjective, not a verb form. It means that they were in a married state for a few years, before they divorced in 2016. All past tense, just a change of state. It's important to distinguish events that are punctual, like getting married, from states that simply exist for some period of time. The perfect has a number of uses, depending on the type of predicate involved; but this is not one of them. Jan 5, 2020 at 17:52
  • 5
    It is not incorrect to say "They had been married for five years when they divorced." However, sometimes the precipitating event is implied and not stated outright.
    – Lambie
    Jan 5, 2020 at 17:52
  • Well, do I understand correctly that if I'm speaking of being in some state (were married, were green, were kind) and that state changes before some past event (the divorce in 2016, the election of Trump) I should use the Past Simple tense for the stative predicate adjectives? When should I use the Past Perfect tense then? What are those types of predicates? Could you please give an example or two?
    – Let
    Jan 5, 2020 at 18:10
  • 1
    Question to someone: Had he used it in everyday speech at that point? Answer: No, he used it after that. [implied precipitating event]
    – Lambie
    Jan 5, 2020 at 18:23
  • You're asking about someone using something before some past event (some point which was before some implicit event) that's why you're using Past Perfect, and then you hear a reply that someone used something after that implicit past event, so you're justified in using Past Simple. Because you should use Past Perfect to indicate that something happened before some event in the past.
    – Let
    Jan 5, 2020 at 18:30

2 Answers 2


There is no reason you couldn’t use the simple past tense in the first example.

I explained this rule to you for half a lesson before I gave a test

There is also no reason you couldn’t use the past perfect tense in the second sentence.

They had been married for a few years before divorcing in 2016.

These are both grammatical, as are your original examples. The use of before, when, and other explicit indications of relative time serve to make it not strictly necessary to use tense to indicate relative time, so the chance of ambiguity is reduced in this kind of situation. It is not coincidental that the second sentence also has such explicit indications of the relative time of each clause.

The distinction here is that my modified first example might imply that that explaining took place immediately prior to the test—that is, half a lesson was dedicated to explaining the rule in question, and then a test on that subject was given in the second half of the lesson. Adding had here will separate the two clauses more in time, leading to a stronger expectation that the half-lesson on the rule was further back in time before the test.

Let me emphasize, however, that neither sentence is entirely unambiguous about how much time did or didn’t pass between the explaining and the test-giving. If it were necessary to be very clear on that, another clause explicitly saying so would be necessary.

Anyway, that consideration doesn’t come into play for the second sentence—divorce is the end of the marriage, so the couple in question was “married” for the entire time up until the divorce in 2016. That means that the possible implication that the divorce immediately followed “being married” is entirely accurate—they really were married right up until they weren’t. Note that this means that the verb here, really, is were, while married is an adjective describing the couple’s marital status (as “Yes,” basically). We could change this to had married a few years before or had been married a few years before or had been married for a few years before, at which point that entire clause is the verb. There is nothing wrong with doing this, but it also doesn’t add any meaning, or even implicit nuance, to the sentence—which means most English speakers aren’t going to do it. It makes the verb more complicated without adding anything to the sentence.

Ultimately, what this example comes down to is the flexibility of the word married. It can be an adjective describing an ongoing marital status (“the married man”), or a verb describing taking part in a particular event at a specific point in time (the wedding, or even more precisely whatever moment during the ceremony is considered to be the point where the couple’s marital status changes, whether that’s the exchanging of vows, a kiss, signing a document, or whatever). Moreover, as a verb, it can be transitive (“he married them,” where he is the officiant and they are the now-married couple), or intransitive (“they married,” where they are the now-married couple). The flexibility on being transitive can also be used to change the voice without actually changing the meaning of a sentence in some cases (“they married” and “they were married” would ordinarily mean exactly the same thing, that they are now married).

  • A few more examples with some commentary to make sure I've got it right: "I had worked there for 5 years when he died." -- It means I had completed five years of work there prior to the person's demise. Those might be total 5 years finished way before the person died. "I worked there for 5 years before (or when) I got sacked" -- My working days were over when I got sacked, i.e. I don't have to say "I had worked" because it's clear that I worked before I got sacked. "I was a worker for 5 years before I got sacked." -- I could use "had been a worker" but it's not necessary as well.
    – Let
    Jan 5, 2020 at 23:36
  • @Rusletov The first one might be a stretch—just the pairing of those statements creates an impression that you were working there at the time of his death, regardless of tense. The use of had is correct but it’s not strong enough to overcome that. The other two are correct, and yes, quite a bit of variation is possible while still maintaining that meaning, but most of the time most English speakers will stick to the simple past for those situations since more complex constructions don’t add anything.
    – KRyan
    Jan 5, 2020 at 23:57
  • I see. One crucial distinction should be made though. The sentence about formerly married couple is actually about a state. it's not about an action (or event). Would I be right saying that "They were married before (till, until) some point in the past is the best sentence because it says about a state which was true for some time in the past and then it became false (they divorced in 2016), but the sentence about an action (Me explaining) would be better off with Past Perfect, because it's about an action which took place before another action (the test-giving moment)?
    – Let
    Jan 9, 2020 at 17:24
  • @Rusletov I mean, as a native English speaker, that kind of... gets a big shrug from me? Possibly it’s built into the flexibility of the word “married” itself, but the distinction between state and the event that begins that state doesn’t matter very much to me in this context. I had to think things through pretty carefully to come to the conclusion that “they were married” was “[subject] [past-tense verb] [adjective]” rather than “[subject] [passive past-tense verb],” because I don’t really think about sentences that way. (cont’d)
    – KRyan
    Jan 9, 2020 at 17:33
  • @Rusletov I see what you’re getting at, and I think you’re right, but at least in this context, it doesn’t really matter one way or another, and trying to think about some hypothetical categorical... doesn’t usually work in English, and it’s not how English speakers think about the language, I’m afraid. So I don’t feel confident saying “yes that’s right” for all cases.
    – KRyan
    Jan 9, 2020 at 17:34

[a dialogue often illustrates usage more clearly]

Just to show how English might actually be spoken:

John: They'd been married for a few years before they got a divorce in 2009.
Mary: No, they hadn't. That's wrong.
John: You mean they'd been living together? Is that it?
Mary: Well, they might have been, I'm not sure. But one thing's for sure. They hadn't been seen together in public for ages well before that.
John: Really? I thought those publicity pictures had been taken just before the divorce in Jan of 09. They were married at the time.
Mary: Look, John, I don't know whether they had divorced at that point or not. All I know is that they hadn't appeared in public for at least three years before that.
John: Right, well, if you're so sure why didn't you write that?

[I shall delete my dialogue by and by.]

  • I can see how you are justified in using Past Perfect in all the sentences. Still I can't see when the Past Simple is preferable to Past Perfect.
    – Let
    Jan 5, 2020 at 18:20
  • They got a divorce is the point in time to which everything else is related.
    – Lambie
    Jan 30, 2020 at 21:05

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