English as a Second Language/past perfect vs past simple


QUESTION: Dear Bian,

(sentences from the book English for Starters 12 by Simon Haines)

'Tareq was born in Damscus in 1962 into a successful Syrian family. His father worked as a civil servant and his mother, who has once been a teacher, was a hard-working housewife."

Why did the writer use (has once been) and not (was once)?

Tristan da Cuna is a small island .... In August 1961 earth tremors started .... In 1963, the volcanic activity on the island stopped and most people voted to go back. however not every one returned: 14 people had adapted to life in England ... and five elderly people had died. There were other changes too: ten couples from the island had married and eight babaies had been born.

Why did the writer use the past perfect above? As you notice, It is after two years ...  So why didn't the writer say "five elderly people died and eight babies were born". I know that we use the past perfect for a action happed BEOFEE another not AFTER.

Best regards,
Antoine Ghannoum

ANSWER: Hello Antoine!

Thanks for the great questions!

With the first example, I wonder if you didn't commit a typo?  The sentence says "has once been a teacher", but this is blatantly incorrect.

The best sentence would have been "who HAD once been a teacher".  Everything else in the text is in the past tense, so this should also be in the past tense.

Colloquially (or, in conversation) you could use the past simple as well (who was once a teacher).  This is technically incorrect, as there is no specific point in time indicated in the text, but it is commonly used.

The same applies to the second example: there is no specific point in time indicated, so technically the past simple is incorrect, but again, colloquially it is fine.  However, since we don't know EXACTLY when the elderly people died or when those babies were born, the past perfect is technically the correct answer.

I hope that helps!

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Yes I made a mistake. The sentence must read, 'Tareq was born in Damascus in 1962 into a successful Syrian family. His father worked as a civil servant and his mother, who had once been a teacher, was a hard-working housewife."

Could you please explain more about the term "technically incorrect"? It is strange to me. Also, what do you mean by "there is no specific point in time"?

In addition, please take a look at the following test from English for Starters 12 taking about past events:

"In 1975 my family (1) left England on an aeroplane. Few hours later we (2) arrived in Damascus, Syria. My mother (3) was/had been worried about the plane journey because she ((is)) scared of flying. But there (4) was no turbulence and she (5) slept through the trip.

In Syria my family (6) lived in a lovely apartment, which was (7) provided by my father's new job. My father helped to run an engineering firm that (8) built bridges. We (9) went to an international school and (10) attended school with children from all over the world. At first, it (11) was difficult getting used to being away from home, but we all (12) worked hard to fit in and the locals  (13) were very friendly. 1986, my family and I (14) returned  to England , but I (15) loved/had loved my time in Syria. I (16) had learnt so much about an interesting culture and (17) had made so many friends."

Please note that the tense forms after the numbers are taken from the Key. Could you explain why two forms are possible in (3) and (15). Also, why the past perfect is used in (16) and (17). I think that there is a printing mistake when the writer used the present tense (is) in this story do you agree?

Hi again!

Sorry to take so long to get back to you, but thanks for waiting!

"Could you please explain more about the term "technically incorrect"?"

Sure!  But first I'd like to talk a little bit about language.  Language is a "living convention."  What does that mean, exactly?

First, language is "living."  What that means is that languages never stay the same.  Our societies go through cultural and technological changes which causes languages to "evolve": we adapt new terms or expressions, we drop old ones and we even alter our grammatical rules as our language is influenced.

Second, language is a "convention", which means language is just a system of rules that we agree upon so we can use it together.  These rules are then described in things like dictionaries or textbooks.

Contrary to what most people think, dictionaries and textbooks don't "prescribe" language rules, they describe them.  In other words, dictionaries don't MAKE rules, they just tell us what they are.  We all, collectively, make these rules, and so we can change them, like when a new technology is developed, or when we start borrowing words or expressions from other languages.

What I'm trying to say is, whether a word or expression is correct really depends on the context.  If you are taking a test, the correct answer is determined by what is described in a textbook or reference book - this is what I refer to as the "technically" correct answer - but when you are having a conversation with someone, a completely different set of rules may apply.  Those are what I call "colloquially" correct answers.

As an example, if you take a test and the following question appears:

1. I talked __ him.
a) at
b) for
c) with
d) to

The technically correct answer would be C.  However, in a colloquial context, A or D would be more appropriate, depending on how you talk.

"Also, what do you mean by "there is no specific point in time"?"

Good question.  The sentence simply said "Five elderly people had died."  When exactly did they die?  Yesterday?  March 26th, 1995?  The text does not say specifically.

Technically speaking, when no specific point in time is given, you "are supposed to" use the perfect tense.  However, native English speakers do not always actually follow this rule.  It is very common to hear the past simple tense used without a specific point in time given (even though the "technical" rule is that you MUST establish a specific point in time to use the past simple).

1. ...his mother, who had once been a teacher, was a hard-working housewife.
2. ...his mother, who was once a teacher, was a hard-working housewife.

If you are doing formal writing, or taking a test, you'd better choose/use the first sentence.  However, in conversation, you will very often hear the second one.

I hope that makes sense, and again, sorry for taking so long to get back to you!

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Brian Connelly


I can answer pretty much any question a student might have about English; about grammar, vocabulary, meanings of words, phrases, expressions or idioms, pronunciation, etc. I can answer questions about how to learn or study English better, how to improve certain aspects of communication (listening, writing, speaking, etc), about why we have certain rules.


I've been teaching English in Japan, mainly as a private (one-to-one) teacher, but also at companies such as Universal Studios or international airports. I have taught professional interpreters and translators and I have also taught students who dropped out of high school and never learned any English. Several years ago I acquired the CELTA and I have been running my own classroom for the past year.

None in particular, but I work with a number of companies who regularly introduce me to new students and occasionally to other companies that are looking for English teachers.


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I currently have approximately 40 individual students with whom I work one on one. I have also worked with local manufacturing companies, colleges, local retailers, as well as Sharp, Universal Studios, Itami International Airport, Kobe International Airport

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