Before + Past Perfect

  1. He interrupted me before I [size=150]had finished[/size] speaking.
  2. The were given help and advice before they [size=150]had made[/size] the decision
  3. He went out before I [size=150]had finished[/size] my sentence.
 Why the past perfect is used as in the examples above?
 Could you please explain why is there a past perfect with the action that patiently happened AFTER the past simple action?  Why is the past perfect acceptable here?  It sounds me that it is ILLOGICAL, isn't?..

OR is it conversational/informal usage?

The context would clarify that there was another past event too.

***** NOT A TEACHER *****

I cannot explain why, but I can offer some advice from one of my favorite books:

“Sometimes the past perfect … is used in a subordinate clause [such as “before I had finished my sentence”] beginning with before or an equivalent word, to indicate an action which should have preceded the action expressed in the main clause, but did not actually do so.”

Let’s look at this sentence: He left before I had finished my speech.

a. I started my brilliant (just joking!) speech at 7 p.m.

b. At 7:15, he thought: “What a boring speech. I’m leaving.” So he (rudely) walked out.

c. At 7:30, I finished my brilliant speech and hundreds of people applauded wildly. (Just joking!)

If he had been a courteous person and had stayed for my speech, then I could have said:

I had finished my speech before he left. (But that DID NOT HAPPEN.)

Here is a personal experience:

Many years ago at 10:30 a.m. I told some people: “I think Mr. X will return tomorrow.” The people then went home very happy.

Then at 11:45 a.m., I called Mr. X who told me: “I will NOT be returning tomorrow.”

I told Mr. X: “OMG! I told them that you would return tomorrow before I HAD SPOKEN with you.”

“had spoken” refers to an action that SHOULD HAVE PRECEDED the action in the main clause. That is:

I had spoken to you BEFORE I told them that you would return tomorrow. (But that did not happen.)

I know this is all very confusing. Here is a good example from that book:

“He gave his decision before he had studied the data.”

He is not a good manager. Why? Because he HAD not STUDIED all the data BEFORE he gave his decision. (That is what “SHOULD HAVE HAPPENED” – but didn’t!)


Walter Kay Smart, English Review Grammar.

Think carefully about the meaning of the sentence you are suggesting:

  1. [color=indigo]He interrupted me before I finished speaking.
  2. [color=indigo]He interrupted me before I had finished speaking.
  3. seems to convey the idea that the ‘interruption’ came before I finished speaking ( but I fielded, or ignored his interruption and finished speaking.)
  4. Look at what the author wrote:
    [color=darkblue]I remember Steve Morgan saying that he hoped the candidates would remain involved. When I did get involved, he interrupted me before I had finished speaking by saying, “Thank you”, implying I needed to sit down. Which I did.

That is, he was interrupted before he had said all he wanted to say, and didn’t resume, didn’t finish. The Past Perfect makes this absolutely clear.

Understand that a Past Tense event cannot…cannot…interrupt= divide/come in the middle of another event in the (Simple) Past Tense. One comes before, one comes after; or, they run concurrently.
If you disagree (smiley), write a sentence where it does.

Now Bazza, let us look at it from different angle.

Interruption: the process of engaging in what someone is doing or saying.

To me the emphasis is based on the interruption.

To me the (2) does not necesserarily mean the person did not finished speaking because he was interrupted.

I see it to be the past perfect version of the simple past.


Some grammarians say that when you use the word ‘before’, even the ‘past simple’ would convey the meaning intended. What do you say?

As the past simple wasn’t used, then there must have been a reason. Without context we cannot see what that reason is.

Hi James,

Which of your favorite reference books did you take that from? That explanation sounds plausible to me.

You always do a thorough job of researching things!

[size=75]“There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation – veneer isn’t worth anything.” ~ George Washington Carver [/size]

Hello, Esl Expert:

It is so nice hearing from you again.

I am ashamed of myself for forgetting to give the reference.

It comes from one of my favorite books:

Walter Kay Smart, English Review Grammar (Fourth edition, 1968), page 170.

By the way, he also gives the most comprehensive analysis of that little troublemaker word “as,” too! (No, he does NOT discuss “really.”)



Some grammarians say that when you use the word ‘before’, even the ‘past simple’ would convey the meaning intended. What do you say?

Hi, TH I agree perfectly with them if they say that concerning the meaning they convey ONLY.

But in the other way round, there is some subtle difference.


I’d like to add something to this chat on the past perfect. The standard explanation for its use is that it indicates an earlier action/event of two or more events/actions in the past. All fine and dandy and I can hear myself giving that explanation when I used to teach in front of a live class over many years. The trouble is that it doesn’t really stand up fully when you look at it more closely. As has been said, the past perfect looks a bit over the top when you’ve already got two perfectly respectable conjunctions like ‘after’ and ‘before’ which do the job for you. take for example:

All this happened a long time ago before you reached adulthood.

She played the piano beautifully as a teenager after she left primary school.

Perhaps the past perfect comes into its own in the subjunctive as in:

Had I known, I would have told you. Or when you want to emphasise the time difference and point it out accurately as in:

I remember distinctly that I had left the keys on the kitchen table before I left home.