believed that ancient people <were able/ had been able> to build

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cakypax

Member
Russian
Hello. I'm sorry for a boring question, but do we backshift from past simple to past perfect talking about states? I need to understand why I my brain refuses to use "had been able" instead of "were able" in the sentence (it's from an English test): "The great Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdal believed that ancient people were able to build boats that could cross oceans"
"Were able" is a state, right?
I know that when the sequence of events is clear, we are free not to use backshifting from past simple to past perfect. We can still use past perfect, though, - it's optional in writing. But I don't think it's possible in this example. I think, it would be possible if the sentence was: "The great Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdal believed that ancient people (had) built boats that could cross oceans", because here it's an event (built boats), not a statement. Am I right or wrong? Thank you =)

P.S. The thing is that "were able" is the only correct answer in the test.
 
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  • owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    "Were able" seems ordinary to me in that sentence, cakypax. If you used "had been able", the use of the past perfect would have some justification. In that use, the author would be trying to emphasize the idea that these people had this ability before Thor Heyerdal had the belief and before Heyerdal was even born.

    But "had been able" doesn't seem necessary or particularly useful in that sentence. "Ancient people" was enough to make the sequence of time very clear in the sentence. I don't need to see "had been able" to understand that ancient people had some ability to do something before Heyerdal got around to believing that they did.
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Like owlman, I would probably use "were able", but that is because Heyerdal used "ancient people", which we know refers to a time already in the past when Heyerdal was alive.

    If, on the other hand, Heyerdal had used the word "Peruvians", then there would be no time clues, so you would have to backshift "were able" to "had been able" to make it clear that Peruvians were no longer able to do this at the time Heyerdal said this.

    I don't know whether "be able" is a state or not, but abilities can change over time.
     
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    cakypax

    Member
    Russian
    Hi again. I've got a clue from a friend: "Had been able" kinda implies that they had been able, but at some point after that they *weren't able*, which is not so. So here, using the past perfect, we expect that something after that happened (which would be expressed in past simple, but as nothing happened, we have no reason to use backshift) Does this explanation fit here? Thank you^^
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Without getting bogged down in so-called "rules"never encountered by native speakers, "The great Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl believed that ancient people were able to build boats that could cross oceans" is thoroughly idiomatic.

    "Kinda," however, is not a standard English word.:)
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I do have a question about your use of "back shift". "Back shift" is a metaphor from manual typewriting. If you back shifted you went back one space and were able to type over the previous space.

    What do you mean by "back shift" here? I would like to participate in this discussion once I understand the question better. (I read the Kon-Tiki about five or six times. Great book.)
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Hi again. I've got a clue from a friend: "Had been able" kinda implies that they had been able, but at some point after that they *weren't able*, which is not so.
    "Had been able" does indeed imply that at some point after that they weren't able to any longer, and this is exactly the meaning Heyerdahl intended. His idea was that this ability had been there but had been lost (this is not from the context given in the original post, but what I know of Heyerdahl, having read his book The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, and some of his other writing).

    As I said in post #3. this distinction that the ability had been lost is not necessary when the subject of the verb is "ancient people" who, by definition, weren't alive at the time Heyerdahl had his idea.
     

    DonnyB

    Sixties Mod
    English UK Southern Standard English
    Hi again. I've got a clue from a friend: "Had been able" kinda implies that they had been able, but at some point after that they *weren't able*, which is not so. So here, using the past perfect, we expect that something after that happened (which would be expressed in past simple, but as nothing happened, we have no reason to use backshift) Does this explanation fit here? Thank you^^
    Yes, that explanation makes sense. Using "had been able" in that sentence does suggest to me that at some point in the past they'd stopped being able to do it.

    [cross-posted]
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    I do have a question about your use of "back shift". "Back shift" is a metaphor from manual typewriting. If you back shifted you went back one space and were able to type over the previous space.

    What do you mean by "back shift" here? I would like to participate in this discussion once I understand the question better. (I read the Kon-Tiki about five or six times. Great book.)
    Sorry, Packard, I am guilty of using the term as well. It refers to changing the verb form in reported speech (or beliefs in this case; it can be applied to any expression of thought):
    Thor Heyerdahl believed: I can cross the Pacific Ocean on a small raft.​
    Thor Heyerdahl believed that he could the cross the Pacific Ocean on a small raft.​
     

    DonnyB

    Sixties Mod
    English UK Southern Standard English
    I do have a question about your use of "back shift". "Back shift" is a metaphor from manual typewriting. If you back shifted you went back one space and were able to type over the previous space.

    What do you mean by "back shift" here? I would like to participate in this discussion once I understand the question better. (I read the Kon-Tiki about five or six times. Great book.)
    It's off-topic here ;), but:
    Oxford Dictionaries (who spell it as all one word) define backshift as: [Grammar] The changing of a present tense in direct speech to a past tense in reported speech (or a past tense to pluperfect).

    [cross-posted]
     
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