There's a sentence in which I have to express that one activity took place more recently than the other three. It's a classic case when past perfect should be used, but how does it look in terms of grammar and fluency?

I know that the first word of advice would be to split it, but I was specifically instructed not to do so. Here it is:

Several years ago, I found myself on that list only because I had diligently performed my professional duties, while the authorities of the country, where I had been working, had decided to [do something]

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    There is technically no limit on the number of instances of past perfect in a sentence. Is there a reason why you suspect that something is wrong with this sentence? Mar 16, 2022 at 20:56
  • Using past perfect three times in one sentence sounds just a little bit awkward to me, but I may be wrong. Thanks!
    – Yan
    Mar 16, 2022 at 21:07
  • I wouldn't do it. But you have a sorta list: Years ago, I found ... I had diligently performed my professional duties, ... had been working, ... had decided to do something. Mar 16, 2022 at 21:11
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    The sentence is fine. In fact, it is perfect. Since everything took place before he "found himself" doing x, it is used correctly. Here's another: He became annoyed at participants as they had not done their research, had not carefully considered the issues and had little basis for their uninformed opinions. :)
    – Lambie
    Mar 16, 2022 at 22:18
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    @Lambie Yes, though you do need that Oxford comma after issues. Never leave it out if you want it heard. Mar 17, 2022 at 15:23

1 Answer 1


The only danger in cramming in a ton of past perfects is that they all relate in time to the simple past, but not to each other. If your narrative involves a complex timeline, more specific wording might be necessary to establish it.

When I got home I realized I had left my jacket at work. It had been cold, and I had needed it. I had been wearing it at lunch. Chris had handed it to me. I had told him my wife had bought it for me. I left it at my desk.

There's nothing ungrammatical about this paragraph, but it's confusing. I might reasonably suppose that Chris handed me the jacket before I put it on to wear at lunch, and that my wife's purchase was the earliest of all these events. But did I leave it at my desk when I left to go home, or before Chris handed it to me? When did I "need it," at work or while driving home?

But note, these are not concerns about grammar but about organizing thoughts to communicate meaning clearly.

In your case, context and logic make some ordering clear, though there is some ambiguity, even for other reasons. "The authorities" "decided" "while." While meaning "at the same time as"—as what? the time that you "had diligently performed," or the time you "found yourself on the list"?

  • The issue, if anything, that the example used in the question is not that of tense, or of the repeated use of the same tense in a single sentence. It is about subordination, and, in particular, about 'nested' subordination. So, using brackets, you have: "...because (I had diligently performed my professional duties, {while the authorities of the country, [where I had been working,] had decided to.....})." It is not difficult to work out what is going on and which clause is dependent on which. But many (including myself) have to read the sentence more than once to be sure of understanding.
    – Tuffy
    Mar 16, 2022 at 23:45
  • Thanks a lot, everyone! Really helpful inputs!
    – Yan
    Mar 18, 2022 at 15:23

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