The Grammarphobia Blog

A past that isn’t perfect

Q: I teach English as a foreign language. My students have a good grasp of the past perfect, but they’re freaking out at this sentence: “They arrived before the game had ended.” Shouldn’t a past-perfect action (the game) happen BEFORE the other action, not after?  How do I explain this grammatically? Or is it, in fact, incorrect?

A: This construction is legitimate, even though the chronology seems mysterious on close examination. The key to the mystery, as we’ll explain later, is the word “before.” 

As your students know, when we refer to two events that happened at different times in the past, we use different tenses—like the simple past tense (“arrived”) along with the past perfect (“had ended”).

Normally, the more recent event is described in the simple past tense and the more distant event in the past perfect. This clarifies the sequence of events.

Here’s an example of a normal chronology: “Steve had finished [past perfect] the book, so he returned [past] it yesterday.”

Even if we reverse the sentence—“Steve returned [past] the book yesterday because  he had finished [past perfect] it”—we know the finishing happened before the returning.

The past perfect tips us off that an action happened further back in time than one described in the simple past. A linguist would say the past perfect is “anterior” to the simple past.

But here’s the catch. When the past-perfect event is introduced by the word “before,” as in the sentence that puzzled your students, the chronology seems to go awry. 

Consider this sentence: “The library asked [past] for the book before he had finished [past perfect] it.”

Note that the event described in the simple past (the asking) comes before the one described in the past perfect (the finishing).

Logic tells us that the past-perfect event should chronologically precede the one in the simple past. But in fact the asking here happened first—the word “before” is staring us in the face.

The relationship between the two events may look screwy but in fact it’s not. That’s because the finishing of the book should have happened by that time but it didn’t. What was expected didn’t actually get done.

When we invent similar examples (“They left before we had eaten” … “He knew her before she had married Edgar” … “We drank the wine before it had been properly aerated”), the same notion is at work. The use of the past perfect here has little to do with the real chronology of events.

In grammatical terms, it appears that the use of the past perfect in cases like these isn’t so much temporal (having to do with time) as modal (having to do with what’s contrary to, or other than, simple fact). 

As it turns out, we’ve found some academic writing on this subject, much of it by Renaat Declerck, professor emeritus of English linguistics at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

Declerck delivered a paper on the subject before an international linguistics conference in France in 2004. The article was later collected in a book of essays, Modality in English (2009), edited by Raphael Salkie and others.

In his paper, “ ‘Not-Yet-Factual at Time t’: A Neglected Modal Concept,” Declerck says the degrees of factuality generally recognized in linguistic literature range from factual to probable to possible to improbable to false.

He says linguists have rarely discussed another state of factuality—“the special use of the past perfect in (what I call) not-yet-factual before-clauses.”

In the sentence “She read the letter before I had read it,” Declerck says, “the function of using the anteriorized form had read … is therefore to bring not-yet-factuality into focus.”

In other words, the use of the past perfect emphasizes the idea that the event hadn’t yet come to pass—that it wasn’t yet a fact.

As Declerck explains, the “had”-less version is “weakly not-yet-factual” while the one with “had” is “strongly not-yet-factual.”

Two other linguists, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, have a somewhat different  take on the difference between the “had” and “had”-less versions of these “before” clauses.

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Huddleston and Pullum consider this example: “She left the country before she [wrote/had written] her thesis.”

The “had”-less version, they write, “indicates that the leaving preceded the whole of the thesis writing” while the “had” version “allows (and indeed suggests) that she had started writing when she left.”

As you can see, we’re dealing here with a subtle difference—one that’s viewed somewhat differently by the few linguists who’ve written about it.

Our feeling—and we’re not linguists—is that the use of the past perfect in these “before” clauses simply emphasizes the incompleteness of the event.

It’s true that your sentence—“They arrived before the game had ended”—could have been written entirely in the simple past instead: “They arrived before the game ended.”

But the use of two different tenses emphasizes the fact that the game was incomplete when they arrived.

We hope this sheds some light on a shadowy area of English. Best to you and to your students.

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