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past simple or past perfect?
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Niki from Hungary writes:

The following sentence has been giving me a headache for weeks now. Could you please give me the correct answer and justify it as well?

When was the last time you had eaten / ate in this restaurant? ~ Two weeks ago.

Michael Chan from Hong Kong writes:

In reported speech, do we have to change the past simple into the past perfect?

Roger Woodham replies:

In your example Niki, it has to be the past simple tense:

  • When was the last time you ate in this restaurant? ~ Two weeks ago.

The past simple is used to refer to finished periods or moments of time. It refers to a definite past. Thus, it is often used with time adverbials such as last night, some time ago, in 1985, earlier today, at six o clock this morning, the last time, the first time, etc. Compare the following:

  • The first time I ate caviare was in Moscow twenty years ago and the last time was at Helen's a week last Thursday.

  • We bought this house when we moved to London in 1996 and extended it at the back last year.

  • When did you last speak to your father? ~ I spoke to him on the phone this morning.

Other examples may not mention a particular time in the past, but it is clear that the speaker is thinking of a definite time in the past:

  • Where did you get those coffee tables? ~ I got them from the antique furniture shop in the High Street.
 

The past simple can also be used to refer to repeated events in the past or to express a past state or habit:

  • I spent all my childhood in Cornwall. When I was very small, we lived in a small house by the sea and I played every day on the beach in the summer holidays.
     

past perfect

We use the past perfect when we are already discussing the past and want to refer back to an earlier period in time. Compare the following:

  • As I entered, I remembered that I had eaten in this restaurant twice before.

  • I phoned her to see if she wanted a lift, but she had already left.
 
      past perfect and indirect speech

The past perfect is very common in reported speech, Michael, when we want to talk about things that had happened before the saying or the thinking took place:

  • I suddenly realised that we had met before.

  • I asked them if they had been to this part of America before.

  • I thought I had renewed my subscription to the National Geographic magazine, but they informed me that I hadn't.

In all of these examples, the original direct speech equivalent would use the present perfect:

  • "We've met before, haven't we?"

  • "Have you been to this part of America before?"

  • "You haven't yet renewed your subscription to the National Geographic."

The normal shift then in reported speech is one tense back: present perfect becomes past perfect. But when the original utterance is in the past simple, we sometimes retain the past simple in reported speech as an alternative to the past perfect. Either past simple or past perfect is quite acceptable in these examples as it is not so important to show the relationship between the events being spoken about and the original speech:

  • "Alice phoned while you were in the bath".

  • She told me that Alice had phoned while I was in the bath.

  • She told me Alice phoned while I was in the bath.

  • "It's all over now but we enjoyed our trip to South Korea and Japan enormously".

  • They reported that they had enjoyed their trip to South Korea and Japan enormously.

  • They reported that they enjoyed their trip to South Korea and Japan enormously.
 

If you would like more practice more please visit our Message Board in the You, Me and Us part of our website.

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