Which is correct to use in the following example, simple past or past perfect?

  • We were completely in the dark after the wind blew the candle out.
  • We were completely in the dark after the wind had blown the candle out.
  • 9
    Either one is fine. There is no difference in this context. On the whole, however, unless there is a very specific reason to use Past Perfect, simple Past, or occasionally Present Perfect, is normally better. Dec 9, 2012 at 3:58
  • 1
    How is this question any less GR than the closed ones?
    – Kris
    Dec 9, 2012 at 5:27
  • @Kris: From comments, it's clear at least two very competent speakers firmly believe only simple Past is valid here, so it's possible to imagine someone else (probably neither of those two) thinking that's a commonplace thing to know or look up. I'm more bothered by the other closevote, which claims it's NARQ. That I don't understand at all - this is an exceptionally clearly-presented question, imho. I'd already upvoted it for that reason before I even found out there might be differences of opinion (John Lawler's comment summarises my position perfectly). Dec 9, 2012 at 18:50
  • @JohnLawler The sentences imply different things. Whether or not to use had depends on the facts, and maybe also the intended register. Barrie England's answer clarifies what I meant by voting this question GR. Somehow I cannot see how 'either one could be fine' without context.
    – Kris
    Dec 10, 2012 at 5:00
  • @Kris: They're both grammatical. That was the question. You're correct, they can be interpreted differently (like any two distinct sentences, given some effort), but that's not a grammatical problem, much less a "correctness" problem, which was what was asked. Dec 10, 2012 at 5:11

2 Answers 2


The past perfect construction is used to describe a past event that precedes another past event. In the example, the first event is the wind blowing out the candle, and the second event is the speakers finding themselves in the dark. That makes the second sentence an entirely appropriate way of saying what happened.

The crucial word that indicates the sequence of events is after. First one thing happened, then another. The problem with the first sentence is that the use of the past tense in both the main clause and the subordinate clause suggests that both events have the same time reference. If that is what is intended, then it makes more sense to join the two clauses not with after, but with when:

'We were completely in the dark when the wind blew the candle out.'

  • I'm a long way from being convinced here. As John comments, in OP's exact context, grammatically, both forms are fine, and they're semantically equivalent. And I can't really see anything wrong with using Past Perfect after when - again, that would still have the same meaning. But Simple Past, as in your final example, is open to the interpretation that we were already in the dark, at and before the time the candle went out. As in "He was just a poor dirt-farmer when he won the lottery". Dec 9, 2012 at 14:23
  • @FumbleFingers. I thought someone would say that, but so long as a candle is alight it is reasonable to suppose that those in its proximity are not completely in the dark. Dec 9, 2012 at 14:42
  • Absolutely. That's why I chose a "parallel" construction involving a "prior state" and a "subsequent event" where you don't need any contrived interpretation to know exactly the sequence, and the extent of any overlap in time. And I think you could quite reasonably say "He punched his boss in the the face after he had won the lottery" - arguably PP there emphasises that the one event specifically follows after (and is dependent upon) the other. Dec 9, 2012 at 15:06
  • As always, it is impossible to give a fully accurate answer without seeing the full context. I maintain, however, that in formal prose a main clause with the past tense requires the past perfect construction in a subsequent clause introduced by after, unless conext dictates otherwise. At the very least, it is the solution likely to cause least trouble. Dec 9, 2012 at 15:12
  • Well, I'm sure you'd know more about the "requirements of formal prose", but in ordinary speech, I can't see anything "odd" about, say, "I haven't been with my sugar-daddy for long. We only got to know each other after he'd won the lottery" (which I think is another parallel construction). And I can easily convince myself that PP there "validly" carries some slight implication of trying to place the time before that lottery win firmly in the past, even if it ain't talking proper according to rules that I don't know very well. Dec 9, 2012 at 18:32

We were completely in the dark after the wind blew the candle out.

You would use "had X" when describing and action further in the past before this event, as in:

We were completely in the dark after the wind blew the candle out. This had never happened before.

  • 3
    You missed out "We were completely in the dark after the wind had blown the candle out, so we played rock-paper-scissors by touch until daylight." Past Perfect there places the blowing out of the candle firmly before the tactile games. Dec 9, 2012 at 5:06
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers I don’t think your example sentence should have past perfect in it. Simple past suffices there, because of the so, and the details.
    – tchrist
    Dec 9, 2012 at 15:35
  • @tchrist: You and Barrie both, it seems. I don't deny that PP isn't exactly necessary - but like John Lawler, I don't think it's necessarily wrong, either. And I could have phrased the bit after the comma as simply "playing rock-paper-scissors by touch", so you can't invoke the presence of "so" as a factor. Whatever - if you know of a rule here, you're welcome to be constrained by it. Like you, in certain contexts, I'm happy to say "I might say it myself without misgivings, so it must be okay by my rules". Dec 9, 2012 at 18:42

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