Submitted by damirhasandic  •  April 20, 2005

Past or Past Perfect

“He spoke to his teacher before the examination began.” Why wasn’t past perfect used at the begining of this sentence? Shouldn’t this sentence be like this?: “He had spoken to his teacher before the examination began.” I need your help. I am so confused.

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spoke to... implies that the test is still going on


had spoken to means it's all in the past looking back

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One other little note, upon reading Speedwell's comment again. You wouldn't use two past perfects together, as in your first example, because the whole meaning of the past perfect is that it is an action/event that precedes another action in the past. If they are both past perfect, which one came first? (much like the chicken and the egg...)

In fact, your final example, which you deemed awkward, is actually completely gramatically correct!

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Saying 'began' clearly implies it's already happened. My suggestion would be either "He spoke to his teacher before the examination began", or "he had spoken to his teacher before the beginning of the examination".

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It's actually a quite simple rule that's often given in ESL grammar books--when you have the time words "before" or "after" in a sentence with two past verbs, you don't need the past perfect because the time relationship (i.e. the order of events) is obvious from the context.

So...in cases such as that one, the past perfect is optional but not obligatory

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the more I think about it, my second example sentence should have read

He stared at the paper. Although he had spoken to the teacher before the exam had begun, he could not remember what the teacher had said.

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Its a question of when in the storyline you are saying the sentence. If the examination has already started then you would say "he had spoken...had begun" At the moment, "He spoke... began" does not imply that the examination has begun.

That may be confusing. Let me try an example.

He walked into class and spoke to the teacher before the examination began.

--implies that in the storyline the examination has not yet begun.

whereas

He stared at the paper. Although he had spoken to the teacher before the exam had begun, he could not remember what he said.

--implies that the examination has already begun.

I do hope this helps.

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Wouldn't you like it better if the sentence read, "He had spoken to his teacher before the examination had begun?" I think there's nothing wrong with "He spoke to his teacher before the examination began."

But "He had spoken to his teacher before the examination began" seems like an awkward mixture to me. Anyone else think so?

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