I know that Past Perfect means “earlier past” and is used to clarify which action took place first in chronological order, but what when there are more actions in the past perfect that need to be specifically placed on the timeline? How do I know which action in the past perfect took place first? Here are some examples illustrating my concern:
At around one o’clock, the busker had been playing the guitar for hours, but he hadn’t earned enough money to buy lunch, so he stopped.
When we found him, he had already fallen asleep. He had been waiting for us for too long.
When I came to the beach, the lifeguard told me that she had been watching swimmers all morning, but luckily, so far nobody had been in real danger.
It’s always the had things that happen first, relative to what else is being described, regardless of their position in the sentence. Beyond that, you have to consider what’s being described and what makes sense.
- First, he had been playing the guitar and he hadn’t earned enough money. These were ongoing things that happened concurrently. (At no point did he ever earn enough money.) After that, he stopped (at one o’clock).
- First, he had been waiting. Second, he had fallen asleep. The waiting happened before the sleeping, because you can’t normally be said to be waiting at the same time that you’re sleeping—and it was the waiting for too long that led to his sleep. After that, you found him.
- First, the lifeguard had been watching swimmers and finding that nobody had been in real danger. These were ongoing things that happened concurrently. At no point during the watching was anybody in real danger. After that, you came to the beach and she spoke to you.