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I had seen a documentary on the Whydah before we visited it in Providence.
Sir Francis Drake had worked for the British Navy before he became a pirate.

These two sentences seem quite awkward to me because of the use of the Past Perfect. If Past Perfect clarifies which of two past events occured first, does the word before render it unnecessary, and could they simply be written in past tense?

I saw a documentary on the Whydah before we visited it in Providence.
Sir Francis Drake worked for the British Navy before he became a pirate.

  • I expect more to come after a past perfect sentence, e.g., "But I was still unprepared for what I saw" and "That's why he knew he'd never be captured". Simple past tense just states a fact and promises nothing more. – user21497 Nov 6 '12 at 9:07
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There is no difficulty. The sequence of events in the first is (1) speaker sees documentary, (2) speaker and others visit the ‘Whydah’. One event happened before the other. The same is true in the second example: (1) Drake works for the British Navy, (2) he becomes a pirate. Before is required in both sentences. You can’t write two clauses without linking them in some way, and before is the appropriate conjunction in each of these cases.

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With before, you could change past perfect to simple past in some cases but not all. If the event that happened before another event in the past took place at a specific time, then you could use simple past instead of past perfect with no difference in meaning. For example:

I had visited my uncle once in 1999 before I left the country.

I visited my uncle once in 1999 before I left the country.

But,

I had never seen my uncle before our family moved to CA.

*I never saw my uncle before our family moved to CA.

Your sentences seem to fall under the second category, so changing the past perfect to simple past would make them lose their meanings.

  • Moving to CA is an "event in the past [which] took place at a specific time" though. I see no difference in the examples, and disagree with the analysis. – Andrew Leach Nov 6 '12 at 10:06
  • @AndrewLeach: I guess you are right. Changed that. – Noah Nov 6 '12 at 10:38
  • @AndrewLeach: Moving to CA is, but seeing is not. – Noah Nov 6 '12 at 10:50
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    I still reckon the sentence you have starred is perfectly OK. – Andrew Leach Nov 6 '12 at 10:51
  • @AndrewLeach: Could be. englishpage.com/verbpage/pastperfect.html – Noah Nov 6 '12 at 10:53
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She turned off the gas before I had finished cooking. She paid him the money before I had seen the car! My mum arrived before I had finished cleaning the toilet. These drove me nuts for a week until I realized it was the word BEFORE which was confusing me. If you replace BEFORE with BUT and NOT then they make sense and all of a sudden they are clearly past perfect examples. EG She turned off the gas BUT I had NOT finished cooking. She paid him the money but I had not seen the car. She arrived but I had not finished cleaning the toilet.

protected by NVZ Jul 24 '17 at 16:25

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