Using Simple Past and Past Perfect


From this sentence

When they all left  school, he’d gone to work down the mine with the rest of them.



I think they left school occurred before he went to work.


Is it supposed to be

When they had all left school, he went to work down the mine with the rest of them.



Freddie’s War, Page 9

asked Jan 30 '13 at 01:57 Narong Atsawa New member

2 answers


I looked up the quote on your weblink, and have read a bit of the fictional context surrounding this sentence, and so I can explain that they refers to Freddie and his classmates.  Their leaving school is a past event compared to the narrative timeline of the story.   


Here is an important guideline when considering whether the Past Perfect or Simple Past tense is more appropriate: when (1) you are already focused on the past, and when (2) a clause begins with a time-conjunction such as when, after, as soon as, or once, it is not necessary to use the Past Perfect in that time clause to order the sequence of events between the time clause and the main clause.  The time-conjunctions themselves serve that function.


For example:


After it got dark, we came back inside. [it got dark 1st, and we went inside 2nd]

As soon as Jane arrived, we sat down to eat. [Jane arrived 1st; we ate 2nd] 

Once it stopped raining, we started the game again. [It stopped raining 1st; we started again 2nd]

When you phoned, I rushed out to meet you. [you phoned 1st; I rushed out 2nd]

I finished my homework before you phoned. [I did my homework first; you phoned 2nd]

I was doing homework until you phoned. [I was doing homework first; you phoned 2nd] 


So in the above sentences, the use of the Past Perfect is unnecessary in the time clause.  We can easily understand the sequence of events.  The only context in which the Past Perfect is necessary in a time clause is when you want to emphasize that the first action is separate, independent of, the second action: when there is no causal link.  This is especially true with the time-conjunction when.  Compare:


When I had opened the window, I sat down and had a cup of tea. [there is no causal link; the opening of the window did not cause me to sit down and drink tea]


When I opened the window, the cat jumped out.  [there is a clear causal link; my opening of the window caused the cat to escape] 


So let's look at your suggested revision to the sentence again:


When they had all left school, he went to work down the mine with the rest of them.


From what I can gather from having read a few paragraphs before and after the sentence, there is, indeed, a clear causal link between them having left school and Freddie starting to work in the mine.  So the original text (When they all leſt school, he’d gone to work down the mine with the rest of them) is the best choice.


There is another issue to consider here: why does the writer use the Past Perfect ('d gone) in the main clause?  The story is focused on a past point in time--July 1936--compared to which the classmates having left school and Freddie having started to work at the mine are previous events--and the sequence of events (they finished school first, Freddie started to work at the mine 2nd) are already clear, as explained above.  Thus the basic grammar rules about Past Perfect being unnecessary in the time clause operate alongside the basic function of the Past Perfect in the main clause--showing the relationship between two past events (the two past events being the main narrative focus, July 1936, and Freddie starting to work at the mine before that).


My answer will probably be quite a lot for you to digest.  I have done my best to explain what is going on in this sentence in the context of its surrounding narrative.  Perhaps others will be able to simplify it, but it is not all that simple of an issue, methinks.  Please don't hesitate to ask if you have any follow-up questions.  (I love trying to explain the finer points of the perfect tenses!)



link edited Jan 30 '13 at 15:10 Shawn Mooney Expert

That was clear. Thank you for your time. :D

Narong AtsawaJan 31 '13 at 11:23

add comment

my question is regarding to the issue why writer used past perfect: " 'd gone"
It means backshift in timeline because the writer describes july 1936 and " the classmates having left school and Freddie having started to work at the mine" are previous events before july 1936... it is right?

Additional question: why do not you use in this sentence backshift for time clause too as
"When they had all left school, he 'd gone to work down the mine with the rest of them" ?



link comment answered Dec 16 '15 at 13:27 Jan cuda New member

Your answer

Write at least 20 characters

Have a question about English grammar, style or vocabulary use? Ask now to get help from Grammarly experts for FREE.