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Past perfect – past simple problem

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  • NWtefl
    Participant
    26 January, 2010 at 22:26
    • Total posts: 1

    Hi

    Like many teachers i have my own grammar area that Im particulary fond of. Ive done the past perfect with a group of students and, though they generally understand how it is used with the past simple, there was a question that came up today that I doubt I explained that well.

    Basically they had a list of questions, some correct and some incorrect, and they had to identify those that were wrong.

    It was going okay until the last sentence : "By the time he’d made up his mind, she’d gone".

    A lot of students said this was wrong when it was correct. However, a few disputed it as it didnt follow the rules we had discussed nor follow the pattern of an earlier sentence i.e. "By the time the police arrived, the thief had left".

    The first sentence has "by the time + past perfect + past perfect" while the other has "by the time + past simple + past perfect". However, both are okay.

    So can someone explain this :

    We i]say "By the time he’d made up his mind, she’d gone" (past perfect + past perfect) AND "By the time he made up, she’d gone" (past simple + past perfect). The second sentence is easier to explain but the first is also okay.

    Therefore- how do I explain the difference in meaning between those 2 sentences ?

    Thanks

    dan
    Moderator
    2 February, 2010 at 21:45
    • Total posts: 770

    Reply To: Past perfect – past simple problem

    By the time he’d made up his mind, she’d gone.

    I agree with you that normally, if we follow the "rule", we should probably use past simple in the first half of this sentence, so:

    By the time he made up his mind, she’d gone.

    But… two things here:

    1. "Rules" more often than not turn out to be just tendencies. Language is evolving all the time – spoken language probably more rapidly than written language.

    In fact, spoken grammar is often markedly different to written grammar and, although may purists will disagree with me, "correct" English is English that is in common use, not what a decades-old rule says it should be. To me it sounds quite natural to say "by the time he’d made up his mind, she’d gone" and so we can say that it is correct and that there is no real difference in meaning between the two sentences.

    2. It may even be "correct" anyway (according to the "rules" I mean). Think about what happens when we report speech:

    Direct speech: "By the time he made up his mind, she’d gone".
    Indirect/reported speech: He said that by the time he’d made up his mind, she’d gone.

    Hope that helps.

    Dan

    dltc
    Participant
    10 February, 2010 at 21:07
    • Total posts: 7

    Reply To: Past perfect – past simple problem

    At the risk of splitting hairs, I’d say "By the time he’d made up his mind, she’d gone" is probably a more ‘correct’ sentence. On another post yesterday I referred to the past perfect tense as being ‘the past before the past’: it refers to an action or event that happened before a point/action/event that also took place in the past .. i.e. a past event that took place before a past event.

    If you look at your sentence there is a point in time "the time" and we understand from the tenses that the point is in the past. Both events, him making up his mind and her going, both take place in the lead up to that point and are complete when that point in time has arrived. Both are past before the past — > past perfect.

    I think it’s a case where conceptual understanding of events influences grammar choices and flexes rigid prescriptive grammar rules.

    Anybody any thoughts on this?


    Bob Golden Director of Studies DLTC Language School Dublin Ireland http://www.dltc.ie

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