Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

Pain in the English offers proofreading services for short-form writing such as press releases, job applications, or marketing copy. 24 hour turnaround. Learn More

“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)?

  • November 19, 2011
  • Posted by Mitsy
  • Filed in Grammar

Submit Your Comment



Sort by  OldestLatestRating

'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.

Warsaw Will November 20, 2011, 1:48am

8 votes    Permalink    Report Abuse

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?

Hacovo November 30, 2011, 3:16pm

5 votes    Permalink    Report Abuse

Thank you!

Mitsy November 20, 2011, 2:21am

2 votes    Permalink    Report Abuse

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

muhammad shwany February 8, 2014, 2:42am

2 votes    Permalink    Report Abuse

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"

Warsaw Will February 8, 2014, 1:44pm

2 votes    Permalink    Report Abuse

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

travis norman May 29, 2014, 3:38am

1 vote    Permalink    Report Abuse

Yes     No