In the centuries after the group separated, they evolved in opposite directions.

Shouldn't the former part of the sentence be in past perfect and 'had separated' be used instead of just 'separated'?

  • 2
    It's entirely a stylistic choice, but most speakers / writers would avoid the Perfect form and stick with Simple Past because it's simpler. Besides which, if you did opt for Past Perfect after the group had separated, there's no obvious reason not to match that with ...they had evolved in opposite directions (apart from the fact that using Past Perfect twice here would be stylistically appalling). Jan 23, 2022 at 14:41
  • @FumbleFingers — Is it really true that a second past perfect would be needed (or even allowed) after the first one? I'm no grammarian, but "In the centuries after the group had separated" could be replaced by a specific time frame "In the period between 1066 and the present", in which case not only would "they evolved" be acceptable, but "they had evolved" would seem grammatically incorrect. The problem is equating "they" (plural) to "the group" (singular), as PhilSweet writes. You just can't. It needs to be "the two branches" or whatever is the technical term.
    – David
    Jan 23, 2022 at 15:07
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    You might say that the word after tells the reader which came first. Adding had separated would be laying it on thick. We know which came first. Jan 23, 2022 at 15:09
  • @David: I just said there's no obvious [syntactic] reason why one shouldn't cast both verbs in the Prefect aspect. But the matter of juxtaposing singular/plural group/they is more something that might bother Americans rather than Brits - and it's completely irrelevant to whether (and how often) to use the Perfect form. Jan 23, 2022 at 15:21
  • ...and just because any (intransitive) act of separation inherently involves "multiple" participants doesn't imply we have to explicitly identify those separate participants. My parents separated last year is just as good as My mother and father separated last year. Jan 23, 2022 at 15:26

2 Answers 2


In English both “separated” and “had separated” are in use and acceptable. This is in contrast to some other languages with more prescriptive rules about the succession of tenses.

Other things being equal, I, like the poster, would prefer the past perfect to follow the perfect and would regard the use of the perfect as rather lazy.

However other things are not always equal, and there are cases where one or the other is — in my opinion — more appropriate. Consider the following pair of sentences:

  • After the couple separated, he hailed a taxi and she went to the cinema.
  • After the couple had separated, he spent several years in France while she stayed in London.

In the first example the adverbial phrase refers to the immediate events following the separation (in this case, presumably temporary). In the second case the adverbial phrase covers a longer period of time following the separation (in this case, presumably permanent).

However this is only my preference, and contrary usage is common.


In the centuries after the group separated, they evolved in opposite directions.

The business in front of the comma is an introductory adverbial phrase relating to time. They normally have the same tense as the main clause.

When the focus is on the current event:

Past Mixed Time Frames
Contrasting earlier and later past events

The timing of two related past activities is expressed with past tense verbs in both the main clause and the clause that complements (completes, follows) the preposition—after, before, when, while, etc.

Optionally, the adverbial phrase may employ a past perfect when emphasizing the time relationship of past events. When the focus is on the earlier-later timing of the events:

A contrast in the timing of the two events may be expressed with a past tense verb in the main clause and a past perfect verb in the clause that complements after, before, when, while, etc. Past perfect is optionally used to emphasize or make clear the difference in timing.

After, Before, When (temporal prepositions / conjunctions / adjuncts) Relate the timing of two activities

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