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I've been working through a grammar book "English for Everyone - English Grammar Guide" and I've stumbled upon some sentences regarding usage of Past Perfect that I can't wrap my head around.

Past Perfect is used when we want to say that something happened before some other event in the past, for example "The train had left the station when we arrived" - I get that.

But what about sentences like this?:

  • "She had visited San Francisco once before, when she was 7" - according to forementioned rule she visited San Francisco first, then she turned 7? That doesn't make any sense to me.
  • "The kids had been watching TV all afternoon because it was so cold outside" - again this is confusing, because according to the rules it means that they were watching TV first, then it became cold outside?

Is there some hidden rule that Past Perfect can be also used when another past event was in progress? I couldn't find anything about sentences like these on Google.

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    When a story ( fact or fiction) is being told in the past tense, the past perfect is used to refer to things that happened before that time. So, if a woman in a story planned to visit San Francisco, the narrator can say "She had visited San Francisco before [the time when the story is set), when she was seven years old" Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 17:29
  • Similarly, The kids had been watching TV all afternoon refers to the situation at the end of that afternoon. Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 17:34
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    If you keep finding that the way people really speak and write English doesn't follow the rules you're learning, one good possibility is that you're learning the wrong rules. So you shouldn't be surprised when people don't follow them. Get a better grammar book, one that doesn't mention "past perfect continuous", for instance. As a check, the new grammar book should tell you that there are only two tenses in English (present, past), and that will is a modal auxiliary verb. If it doesn't do even that, burn it. Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 17:41
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    To understand the temporal meaning of sentences like the pair you ask about, you can think of them as starting with the (invisible) prepositional phrase At the moment (now past) that is under discussion…. Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 19:20
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    Past perfect is used in multiple ways. The rule you quoted is just one of them, and doesn't apply perfectly to the examples.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 20:48

3 Answers 3

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The two events needed to trigger the past perfect don't have to be described in the same sentence:

She had visited San Francisco once before, when she was 7,

We use the past perfect here because her first visit to San Francisco happened before her second visit to San Francisco (which presumably will be talked about in the next few sentences using the simple past tense).

The kids had been watching TV all afternoon because it was so cold,

This sentence cannot stand by itself; it presumably is the beginning of a story where something else happens next.

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The first of your sentences means that back when she was seven years old (so before the moment being discussed) she visited San Francisco.

The second one means that on that day it was cold outside all afternoon and that consequently, by the time in question (some point late in the afternoon or afterwards) they had watched TV continuously since noon.

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The definition "when we want to say that something happened before some other event in the past" should not be taken as implying that an event in the past has to be mentioned in the text by means of a verbal form in the past. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language defines the past perfect as the tense that has

"the meaning of 'past-in-the-past', and can be regarded as an anterior version either of the present perfective or of the simple past".

  • (user LPH's italics) Their reliance on him had been the unwritten contract between men and women in places like Wilshire. Husband works. Wife tends to the house, children, and the husband's needs. And she had done that, produced three chidren, overseen their care, managed the house. She had cultivated one of the most envied social life in Wiltshire. (Social Lives: A Novel - Wendy Walker · 2009)

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---------|-----------------------|---------------------|-------------> (CoGEL)
            T3 (before then);       T2 (then)                 T1 (now)

(CoGEL) the past perfective does not have to refer to a more remote time than that referred to by the simple past. In some cases, particularly in a clause introduced by after, the two constructions can be more or less interchangeable:

I ate (T2) my lunch after Sandra had come (T3) back from her shopping. [9]

I ate (T2) my lunch after Sandra came (T3) back from her shopping. [10]

After places the eating (T2) after Sandra's return (which we may call T3), so the past, which places T3 before T2, is redundant.

The following pair of examples (from CoGEL) show that the event in the past simple can even be situated before that in the past perfective.

(CoGEL) Adverbials of time position, when used with the past perfective, can identify either T2 or T3. Placed initially, they often identify T2:

When the police arrived, the thieves had run away.

But in final position, the interpretation whereby the adverbial refers to T3 is more likely:

The thieves had run away when the police arrived.

(CoGEL) Note [a] When in the sense of 'immediately after' behaves like after in sentences [9] and [10]. The following are therefore virtually synonymous:

  • I ate my lunch when Sandra had come back from her shopping.
  • I ate my lunch when Sandra came back from her shopping.

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