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A past perfect sentence that doesn't make sense to me

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A past perfect sentence that doesn't make sense to me

Postby bustarhyme » Tue Apr 09, 2013 6:26 pm

In Martin Hewings' "Advanced Grammar in use 2nd edition", on page 10C, it is written that if the order of past events is clear from the context, we can choose either past simple or past perfect. He then gives three examples, one of which is, I quote:

They were given help and advice before they had made the decision. (or ...they made...)

No additional context is provided, so we must assume the sentence is stand-alone. I don't care for the past simple option. The past perfect variant bothers me. Can you please explain why is there a past perfect with the action that clearly happened AFTER the past simple action? I.e the word BEFORE clearly shows that FIRST they were given advice and THEN the made the decision. Why is past perfect acceptable here?
If anything, to my ear it should be "They had been given help before they made the decision".
Spent an hour today arguing with my colleague today about it, and she claims that it is absolutely clear from the sentence that they made the decision first and THEN were given advice. That is because past perfect is, for whatever reason, more important than the word BEFORE, which could be moved to the beginning of the sentence with no difference in meaning.
I.e it may as well be "Before they were given help and advice, they had made the decision". I agree the latter sentence is correct, but I absolutely disagree it is the SAME in meaning. I feel it is exact opposite in terms of what happened after what.
Anyway, she said the sentence sounded fine to her. I can't help but feel it's off.
Please comment on:
1. The logic of why past perfect is acceptable in the original sentence.
2. My colleague's logic.
Thank you.

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Re: A past perfect sentence that doesn't make sense to me

Postby Alan » Wed Apr 10, 2013 7:58 am

I would concur with you that the example sentence is not felicitously constructed, even though it would probably pass muster at least for conversational purposes.

The most basic function of the past perfect is, of course, to denote an event chronologically antecedent to another (main) event. Thus, while we might logically expect

They HAD BEEN given help and advice before they MADE the decision.

on the basis that the advice patently preceded the decision-making,

to reverse the tenses seems on the face of it to be at best a redundancy, and at worst a blatant misuse.

However, as illogical or unnecessary as it may seem, the use of the past perfect following 'before' is so widespread among natives (He interrupted me before I'd finished speaking, etc.) that it is difficult to account it an actual error.

Personally, however, I would be loath to recommend this usage to learners and believe that the best solution in such a case is usually the most minimalistic, to wit

They WERE given help and advice before they MADE the decision.

relying entirely on common sense/the wording itself to determine the sequence of events, reserving past perfects for the relatively small minority of cases where common sense alone is not sufficient to determine the order, e.g.

They let me sit at the front because I HAD BOUGHT a special ticket.

indicating that the second action in this case took place before, and not after, the first.

I hope that this answer is of some help!

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