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I read web fiction a lot and sometimes I notice sentences that, while being written in past perfect tense, might have been written in past simple tense as well.

For example:

He’d broken his glasses once, years ago. He’d done it in a childish tantrum, and it had taken days before he could get new ones. Back in the ugly days.

That hadn’t been the day the tantrums stopped, but it had been a lesson that had stayed with him. Rare, when he had so many terrible teachers.

What's interesting, the last sentence is past simple while everything else is past perfect, despite they seem to be talking about the same period of time.

My understanding of past perfect is that, when we talk about some event that took place at some time in the past (oftentimes expressed via past simple) and then we want to talk about yet another event that happened prior to the first (most recent) one, we use past perfect, like:

I couldn't open the door [the most recent event] since I'd left my keys [the most distant event] at my friend's place.

So, past perfect implies the existence of the most recent point, explicitly expressed or implied by context, but it doesn't seem like this type of timestamp was given to begin with. The sample talks about a chain of events happened some time back in the past, there's simply no "the most recent event".

It's not the first time I encounter this usage of past perfect in fiction. Is this kind of usage common and what does it mean?

I can't help but wonder: what is the subtle difference between them?

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In narrative, the past perfect is commonly used to describe events/experiences, etc., that have ceased in the past. The past perfect is thus used to set the background/context to the main event(s) that the narrator will experience or relate. That latter experience or event will then be told in the simple past:

e.g. "He had washed and [he had] eaten and [he] had been ready to go out. However, there was a sudden knock at the door."

The first sentence has set the background/context. The second sentence brings us to the "present" in the story.

Essentially, stories are told in reported speech and the verbs backshifted. Thus the example above, in "real time" is

"He washed and [he] ate and [he] was ready to go out. However, there is a sudden knock at the door."

because, the reader experiences the real time of the story/narration at the time of the knock on the door.

We can even see this in the future:

"He washes and [he] eats and [he] is ready to go out. However, there will be a sudden knock at the door."

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It means that the character, through whose eyes the story is being told in the past tense, is looking back to an earlier incident in his life.

He thinks to himself, "I broke my glasses once, years ago..." so, in the past tense, he remembered how he had broken his glasses once.

The last sentence could logically have been That had been rare, when he had had so many terrible teachers, but as the past perfect is cumbersome and the meaning is clear without it, the author has chosen not to use it.

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I think that when the past perfect is used next to past simple it can be very clear, but when used alone the implications are less clear. Having not read the rest of the book, I'm given the impression that we are talking about a character in the past and not now. So in the line:

He’d broken his glasses once, years ago.

I imagine someone in the past who HAS broken his glasses. For example:

Last year, my friend Tom WAS upset [more recent past] because he HAD BROKEN his glasses [more distant past].

So the broken glasses happened in the distant past, as well as the manner it was done in, the time taken to get new ones, it being a lesson to him etc.

However, as you pointed out the last sentence does not say:

Rare, when he HAD HAD so many terrible teachers.

But:

Rare, when he HAD so many terrible teachers.

For me, this implies that even in the more recent past he had terrible teachers, not just before this event. Try comparing these examples:

Example 1:

My friend Tom HAD BROKEN his glasses [we are thinking about Tom in the past and talking of an event that happened in the more distant past]. His mum HAD BEEN angry with him [when the glasses broke in the more distant past, but not in the more recent past].

Example 2:

My friend Tom HAD BROKEN his glasses [we are thinking about Tom in the past and talking of an event that happened in the more distant past]. His mum WAS angry with him [she was probably angry with him in the more distant past and she was STILL angry with him in the more recent past].

You have to remember that despite grammar books teaching past perfect and past simple alongside each other, past perfect is often used alone to imply that we are ALREADY talking about the past, with another action happening before it. By switching back to past simple would imply that a situation exists also in the recent past.

I hope this explanation is clear and helps you!

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  • Yes, you answer has helped me a lot; specifically, the explanation what the implications are. Thank you all!. – CreepySkeleton Feb 26 at 11:34

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