Submitted by Mitsy on November 19, 2011

“by the time”

A question about time expressions with the past perfect tense: I realise “by the time” is a time expression used with the past perfect but in this sentence: “By the time he arrived at school, the lesson had finished” , why is “by the time” next to the verb in the past tense (arrived) as if it is refering to that verb rather than to the one in the past perfect (had finished)?

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by the time usually means too late, as in ops too late. my bad

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It's perhaps also worth noting what happens when we use 'by the time' with future reference, where (like with other time expressions), 'by the time' is usually followed by present simple or present perfect, and we use 'will' or the future perfect for the other verb:

"By the time you read this, I'll have left the country"
"At this rate, by the time you've finished making that scarf, it will already be summer"

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By the time is used with past simple. it really means (before the time)
By the time the rescue ship arrived the island, more than 20 sailors had died.
in this sentence By the time is used with the 2nd action, meaning ( more than 20 sailors died before the arrival of the rescue ship)
we know that past perfect is 1st event and past simple is 2nd

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Makes me wonder...
By the time he arrived at school, the lesson had finished.
Suggesting that he is late, the lesson is completely over, and he has missed it.
He arrived at school by the time the lesson had finished.
Seemingly indicating (to me) that his goal was to get there by then at the latest, and he succeeded by arriving when (or before) the lesson was over. Similar to 'Be home by the time dinner is ready."

Are these correct understandings of the different placement?

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Thank you!

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'By the time' is referring to 'arrived', not 'had finished'

'By the time' really means 'before (the time)' - try it this way:

'The lesson had finished before he arrived.'

The lesson could have finished an hour ago or two minutes ago, it wouldn't make any difference to the sentence.

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