English grammar: Using Simple Past or Past Perfect!

I read a sentence that used the past perfect tense, and I’m trying to understand why it was necessary. The sentence was ‘By the time she arrived, the meeting had already started.’ Why can’t we just use the simple past for both actions and say ‘By the time she arrived, the meeting already started’? How does the meaning change with the past perfect?


Good question. As an English speaker I honestly don’t know, but the second sentence sounds very awkard to me and I’m not sure it’s grammatically correct. Hopefully there’s someone that can give a proper explanation.

I asked ChatGPT (for what it’s worth) and here’s its explanation.

Both sentences convey the idea that the meeting began before she arrived, but they differ in grammatical structure and, to some extent, in the nuance of the timing they express.

  1. First Sentence: “By the time she arrived, the meeting had already started.”

    • This sentence uses the past perfect tense (“had already started”) to indicate that the action of the meeting starting occurred before another action in the past (her arrival). This is the standard and grammatically correct way to express that one past event happened before another past event.
  2. Second Sentence: “By the time she arrived, the meeting already started.”

    • This sentence uses the simple past tense (“already started”) which is not typically used in this context. While it might be understood by most speakers, it’s not considered grammatically standard in formal English to express the sequence of events. The past perfect tense is preferred when emphasizing that an action was completed before another took place in the past.

In summary, the first sentence is grammatically correct for showing the sequence of past events, making it the more appropriate choice in formal writing and speaking. The second sentence might be encountered in casual conversation, but it’s not the standard form for expressing the idea that one event occurred before another in the past.


I agree. To me the second sentence is not grammatically correct.

By the time she arrived, the meeting started.

It doesn’t make sense as it suggests that each event occurred at the same time i.e. her arriving and the meeting starting, which conflicts with By the time. This would be grammatically correct but with a different meaning:

When she arrived, the meeting started.

Thus the meeting starts when she arrives. Arrived and started are both in the same tense, hence refer to the same timeframe. This is also correct:

When she arrived, the meeting had already started.

Thus the meeting started, and then afterwards she arrived. The following has almost the same meaning:

By the time she arrived, the meeting had started.

Hopefully I have not confused the original poster.


Two actions that happened in the past. One action happened before the other. The older action is expressed in the past perfect.
By the time she arrived, the meeting had already started.
When she arrived, the meeting had already started.

However using the past perfect is not always necessary!

You are correct. In order to communicate the same thing you do not need to use the past perfect to indicate the “older” action.
The meeting started before she arrived.
is equal in meaning to
Before she arrived, the meeting started.
You will not be misunderstood if you use the simple past for both actions as illustrated in the example above.

The key is “by the time” vs “before”. If you use “by the time” then the older action must be written in the past perfect.

Natural language comes from the people, then the grammarians come along and take notes and codify patterns. :slight_smile:

I hope this helps, Manio_o.


Yes, It helps me :slight_smile: Thanks a ton. :heart_eyes:


Wonderful. Thank you for the feedback, Maniao_o!

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You already got some good input, but here’s one more way to think about it:

Past perfect is how English expresses the idea of “already” in the past. In other words, you could leave away “already” and the sentence would mean the same thing:

“By the time she arrived, the meeting had started” means “already”. The word simply emphasizes what the grammar says.

On the other hand, if you leave away the past perfect but keep “already” (“By the time she arrived, the meeting already started”), then you have a conflict in the sentence: the grammar says that she arrived and then the meeting started, but the words say the opposite. That sentence is in conflict in the same way as the sentence: “Yesterday, I will go to school.”

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A related grammatical term is anteriority.

Situating things in time is very important in human communications. In part, because of time’s relation to knowledge, decision-making, and the sharing of information regarding our inner reasoning about things. Also, because of time’s relation to cause and effect in the physical world. Often the events are real. Yet, because we’re also concerned about communicating the goings-on of our minds, sometimes the point of time references are hypothetical possibilities.

Often, in communication, there are three meaningful points of reference regarding the timeline.

First, there’s always the present, because we’re communicating in the present.

Anteriority comes into play when we’re wanting to talk about the timing of two other events, such two other events in the past (or even two events in the future on one in the past and one in the future which I’ll get to).

For instance, “I had already packed my swimsuit when I learned it was going to rain.

On a chronological timeline:

A) I had packed my swimsuit.
B) I learned of the rain forecast.
C) The present moment, sharing this information.

In English, with its Germanic roots and its influences of French and Latin grammars, the “past perfect” is used and is done so with the auxiliary verb “had,” such as in the example, I had packed my bag. “Packed” is the past participle. Many Indo-European languages use a similar construct of past perfect with an auxiliary verb (conjugated forms of “have” or “be”) with a past participle.

Note that anteriority can also occur in the future too, for instance.

A) The present moment, sharing this information.
B) We’ll pack our umbrellas.
C) It might then rain later.

Consider this sentence to express this set of events’ timings: "We will have already packed our umbrellas should it rain tomorrow."

(Note in this example sentence, it remains ambiguous when the umbrella packing was before or after the present moment; the important thing is that the umbrella packing be done before it rains!)

Here you see the auxiliary of “have” is conjugated in the future “will have” yet is combined with the past participle “packed.” “Packed” isn’t in the past of now though, it’s in the past of the future hypothetical event of when it might rain. This is “anteriority”–being in the past of something else of concern, other than the present moment. And note that it’s a hypothetical, here marked with the verb “should” as such.

Communicating inner thought processings, physical cause-and-effect, and overall timelines is key to human communications. Note in the use of anteriority, there are also commonly accompanying marker words that help out the reader or listener too, supplementing the conjugation, as anteriority can be a bit tricky in both expressing and in understanding.

  • Adverbs: Already, before, previously, earlier.
  • Conjunctions: After, when.
  • Phrases: By the time, up until, by then, prior to, in advance of, by the end of,

Note that young children often cannot express anteriority with grammar’s conjugation and marker words consistently until the age of 5 to 7.

I hope this explanation of “grammar” tied to the real world and real communication needs help you understand “why it is necessary.”

And further, I think this is a perfect example of why and how grammar knowledge in key areas really helps comprehensible input-based study.