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I saw this fill in the blanks question in my exam:

Before we ___ our meal, he ___ us back to work.

There were four options to this question:

  1. finished, had ordered
  2. have finished, ordered
  3. had finished, had ordered
  4. had finished, ordered

As per my intuition, in a past perfect tense, 'had' is used before an event that happened before another event in past. The way this sentence is structured, 'it looks like the order was given before the meal was finished', so I chose option 1, but the correct answer as per the examiner was 4.

The reasoning given for option 4 was:

  1. As per the sentence, it does not necessarily mean that the order was given before the meal began.

  2. Even though the order was issued first in the chronology of sentence, the eating of meal began first in the real world chronology. So had is used before finished.

The reasoning given in the answer key of the exam does not make any sense to me, because when did the meal began should not matter here.

What are your thoughts about it?

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  • 1
    There is a similar question here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/140096/…. Part of one of the answers quotes Swan in Practical English Usage: "a past perfect tense can refer to a time later than the action of the main verb."
    – Shoe
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 7:23
  • Difficult to explain because it feels so natural to a native speaker. Another use of the past perfect is for an event that was expected (e.g. finishing a meal, someone's arrival or departure) when something else happened. (1) and (3) would make sense, but (4) is by far the most idiomatic. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 7:56
  • The past perfect is a highly marked construction; we avoid it whenever there isn't a clear need for it. When in doubt, don't. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 14:58
  • You could also say "before we could finish our meal he had ordered us back to work."
    – Tuffy
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 21:11

2 Answers 2

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Before we ___ our meal, he ___ us back to work.

The four options given are all perfect constructions.

But you might say that the perfect is redundant because the past/anterior meaning is conveyed by before. We could just say:

Before we finished our meal, he ordered us back to work.

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    The past perfect sounds preferable to me if the clauses are reversed: "He ordered us back to work before we had finished our meal."
    – Shoe
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 11:09
  • @Shoe Right. That possibility is part of the reason why we still have past perfect available, instead of losing it like so many other constructions -- it affords more options. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 14:40
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A similar example can be found in Grammar and Vocabulary by Side and Wellman (page 20):

With before

There is one exception to the time sequence rules on Past Perfect. When we use before, the verb in Past Simple can refer to something that takes place before the verb in Past Perfect. The first action may prevent the second from happening:

The waiter took my plate away before I'd finished eating.

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