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(14) He died after he had been ill for a long time.
(15) She told me his name after he had left.

In a 1989 paper titled "Perfect and pluperfect: What is the relationship?", Raphael Salkie discussed the above pair in the following paragraph:

If the pluperfect in (14) is replaced by a past (...after he was ill for a long time), the result is bizarre, as Bouscaren et al. note (1982b: 77). (14) indicates that the illness was relevant to his death - it is natural to infer that it was in fact the cause of it. Using the past tense instead suggests that the speaker is not asserting any relevance relation between the two events, but in that case, why mention the illness at all, let alone in a subordinate clause straight after mentioning the death? In (15) the relevance relation indicated by using the pluperfect suggests that she deliberately waited until he was out of the room before revealing his name. Substituting the simple past (...after he left) does not, however, lead to strangeness in this instance; the subordinate clause in this case merely functions as a temporal anchor to let us know when the name disclosure took place, without the idea of deliberately waiting. As Bouscaren et al. point out (1982: 77), the relation between the two events is stronger in (14) than in (15). It would be odd to just use the illness as a temporal anchor given the close relation between the illness and dying; hence the oddness of (14) with the simple past.

Let me show the simple past version of (14) again:

(14') He died after he was ill for a long time.

According to the cited paragraph, particularly the boldfaced portion, Salkie seems to be saying that (14') is bizarre because we can't normally think of a context where the illness itself does not lead to his death. But I think I can think of such a context. For example, an old man could have died after suffering for a long time from a chronic but non-terminal disease that did not have any relevance in his death. In this context, the speaker might want to add the information about him being ill for a long time just to convey the idea that he wasn't free from disease before his death.

Does this mean that (14') might work in such a context?

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    The usual expression is He died after a long illness. Other versions sound distinctly odd. Jul 7, 2023 at 7:26
  • The article says it's bizarre but could apply in special contexts. So yes, it does say what you think it says. I'm not sure if "Yes you're right!" merits an answer but maybe someone can turn it into a useful answer.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 7, 2023 at 8:28
  • 'He got married after he was in Canada for several years' also sounds unnatural, and it is surely just sequential rather than in any way causal. Jul 7, 2023 at 10:34
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    A good example of this variation is the sentence "I'm not hungry; I already ate." Most American speakers will find this acceptable, but at least some British speakers would prefer "I've already eaten."
    – alphabet
    Jul 7, 2023 at 13:00
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    @KateBunting: I find He died after being ill for a long time acceptable, as well. But the simple past and past perfect sound a little off to me. Jul 7, 2023 at 14:24

1 Answer 1

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The past perfect had been ill implies a retrospective view, a looking back upon the illness.

She had been ill for a long time.

The illness might still be ongoing (She had been ill for a long time and wondered if she would ever get better) or it might have ended (She had been ill for a long time, and so we were not surprised to get the news that she had passed) but the attitude towards the state or condition mentioned in the pp clause is retrospective.

After yoked to a retrospective view is an odd coupling. It's like trying to grab the hair of Lady Opportunity if she were looking back over her shoulder. Opportunity is bald in the back.

Compare: *I drank a lot of water after I had been thirsty.bizarre

I was working out in the hot sun and had brought no water with me. Man, was I ever thirsty! When I got home that evening, I drank a lot of water after I had been thirsty.

Or this oddity:

I opened my umbrella after it had been raining.

Which we can make normal:

I opened my umbrella after it had been raining for some time.

or

I opened my umbrella only after it had been raining for some time.

I delayed opening my umbrella.

Bizarre or normal depends on which way Lady Opportunity's head is facing. After on the semantic level requires a fixed moment in time.

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  • Are you saying that (14) is odd?
    – JK2
    Jul 9, 2023 at 1:30
  • for a long time keeps (14) from being odd as for some time keeps my umbrella sentence from being odd. If you remove that temporal modifier, it becomes odd in the way I drank a lot of water after I had been thirsty is odd.
    – TimR
    Jul 9, 2023 at 10:52
  • I painted the wall green after it had been blue is odd. I painted the wall green after it had been blue for about ten years is not odd; the temporal phrase gives the open-ended state of blueness the sort of finiteness that after requires.
    – TimR
    Jul 9, 2023 at 10:59

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