In my textbook, The English Tenses (see the timeline comparing all the tenses here), each tense is presented with its full uses and examples, and is then compared to the most likely alternative. In English, we can often use more than one tense for the same meaning, so it is important to know exactly why we should use one and not another. This article is taken from a chapter in the book, to give a brief comparison between the very specific uses of the past simple and the past perfect, and where the two are most likely to be compared.
The past perfect and the past simple
The past perfect is used to show that an event finished before another event, while the past simple shows an event finished. The main purpose is to demonstrate a sequence of events, so the past perfect is more appropriate before another event.
- I had seen the film already, so I did not watch it again.
If the time that the event finished is not important, or is easily understood, it is often possible to use either the past simple or the past perfect. The choice is then a matter of style.
- I had travelled two miles before I ran out of petrol.
- I travelled two miles before I ran out of petrol.
These sentences essentially tell us the same information, and would be understood the same way. The past perfect can also show that one completed action had an impact on the action that followed, though.
- I ate three sandwiches before dinner so I was not hungry. (These simple statements create a stop-start sequence.)
- I had eaten three sandwiches before dinner so I was not hungry. (This sentence shows a more direct influence from one action to the next.)
These sentences can seem almost identical in meaning, but the past perfect can help to create more flowing and more carefully linked sentences.
The past perfect can also emphasise that a past action was actively done.
- He walked to the house and saw that the window was broken.
- He walked to the house and saw that the window had been broken.
In the first sentence, the past simple only tells us the window’s condition (it was broken). With the past perfect, we know that someone or something actively broke it (it had been broken – caused by someone or something).
These differences are subtle, and choosing one tense or the other will not always cause confusion, or be entirely correct or incorrect. Learning how to choose between them flexibly, and accurately, is a large part of mastering the English language.
For more detailed discussion of the tenses, please read my full textbook, The English Tenses.