I feel quite confused. If I want to say that something was true or was happening for a while before some point in the past, what ways does English give me to express that?

If I want to express that some state was true for a while before some point in the past, which English tense should I use?

"They had been married (Past Perfect) for a while before they divorced in 2019"

"They were married (Past Simple) for a while before they divorced in 2019"

Are the sentences above correct and do they express the same meaning? Or do they have slightly different meanings?

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And what about the following two?

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

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

Do they both have similar meanings? In contrast, these two sentences are not about a state ("Being married) but they are both about an action, namely - "explaining".

Do I understand correctly that they both seem correct to native-speakers because they are both about an action in the main clause and not about a state? And if there was a state in the main clause, would it be in Past Simple? enter image description here

  • 1
    "They had been married for a long time when they divorced in 2019" is more formal; "They were married for a long time before they [got] divorced in 2019", while probably not what some sticklers would see as being precise, is probably what most Anglophones would use. The 'had been married' construction (here, this is a continuous, not perfect usage) like the past perfect (eg 'had died in 2002') is often avoided in favour of simpler constructions (were married / living ...; died ...) unless there's a real need to indicate sequentiality. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 12:24
  • You use "when" in the relative clause. Why do you prefer it to "before" in this case? If I used "before" instead, would the sentence mean the same?
    – Let
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 12:39
  • 1
    'Before' is really needed if you're going to opt for 'were married'. 'They were married when they got divorced' sounds bad, even with padding. //// I'd probably better point out that 'They were married' has two senses: the durative one ('They were married for thirty years // when the war broke out ...') and the punctive one ('They were/got married on April 3rd, 2011 // as soon as they had saved enough money for the deposit on a house // in Vegas ...'). Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 12:54
  • This question is better suitable for ell.stackexchange.com.
    – JoHKa
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 22:18
  • @johann_ka I disagree: it's a complex Q. about tenses that many native English speakers would not be able to address.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 19:30

1 Answer 1


You are looking for what old-school grammarians might call the "pluperfect tense". That verb construction describes a state of being in the past in which an action was performed in the even more distant past and was completed.

For example:

I had walked.

As in,

He came to me twenty years ago. At that point in my career, I had walked many thousands of miles already.

To your examples, I think that "They had been married for twenty years when they divorced." (Pluperfect) and "I explained this rule to you for half a lesson before giving you the test." make the most sense. There's a sort of implied "had" in that second sentence, but this construction without it sounds more natural and emphasizes the action rather than it having been completed.

As a general point, here is a brief list of common English verb constructions and their meanings:

In the present:

"I walk." (An action done regularly in the present)

"I am walking." (An action being done right now)

"I have walked." (An action started in the past but completed now, i.e. in the present)

In the future:

"I will walk." (An action to be performed later)

"I will be walking." (An action which will be actively occuring at some - usually specified - later time)

"I will have walked." (An action to be begun and then completed by some time in the future)

In the past:

"I walked." (An action performed in the past)

"I was walking." (An action actively taking place in the past)

"I had walked." (An action both started and completed in the past)

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