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Example:

Standing in front of the sliding glass door, he began to sweat. The last time he had stepped into a convenience store was a year ago.

This is past tense narration. The bolded part is talking about the past within that past tense narration.

It states that the event happened a year ago, so is it necessary to include had? Why or why not?

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    Despite appearances, I suggest this is a Question not about writing but about basic English grammar, which will dredge up subsidiaries such as whether that example shouldn't really say "The last time he had stepped into a convenience store had been a year ago." For reasons like that, I suggest you ask the same thing in SE English Language Learning. Feb 26 at 18:02
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As you’ve written it, I think had is necessary. It reads off without it.

But re-arranging things, it's not needed.

Standing in front of the sliding glass door, sweating, he remembered last year and stepping into a convenience store.

And, now the statement has some suspense to it. \o/!

I’ve had this argument with another writer, who insists that had needs to be used in past tense sentences to avoid the confusion of simultaneous actions. I found it pedantic, and didn’t like how it changed my writing.

For me, I only use had if the sentence needs it to sound right, or if I need to be very clear about the order of events or actions or reaction in a sentence. If a sentence sounds okay without had, and its meaning clear, I avoid using it since its a kind of hard sounding word that throws my rhythms off

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  • You can also avoid ambiguity with something like "The previous time he stepped into a convenience store was a year earlier"
    – Barmar
    Feb 25 at 15:49
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    Your adaption completely changes the meaning of the sentence. I don't think it's correct. In your version, the character goes into the store, in the original version, we only know that he did so last year but in the present, he may decide against it. Feb 25 at 17:11
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    @Barmar, I don't think your version changes the grammar. You replaced "The last time" with "The previous time" and "a year ago" with "a year earlier". You also could decide to insert "had" in your version of the sentence. I don't see how it resolves the question of whether or not "had" is necessary. Feb 25 at 17:13
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    Yes, you can use "had", but it's no longer necessary to indicate that you're talking about time further in the past from the existing context.
    – Barmar
    Feb 25 at 17:19
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    I prefer the original example so much more. The rewording is totally different, and a little unusual (perhaps just to me). The original is dramatic, cliché/idiomatic, and really definitively sets the scene and conveys the palpable feelings of fear the character is experiencing. Feb 26 at 1:32
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"Had" changes the meaning slightly:

The last time he had stepped into a convenience store was a year ago.

He hasn't stepped into a store between that moment and a year before.

The last time he stepped into a convenience store was a year ago.

He hasn't stepped into a store between now and a year before. This will not be true if he goes through the door.

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  • Not super sure about this. I'm not a native speaker. Feb 25 at 16:52
  • Maybe this would be true if we consider "had" vs "has"? Feb 25 at 16:53
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    This is correct. However, now can be the current place in the story (especially if it's in the character's thoughts), so depending on the context, either could be acceptable. Feb 25 at 21:36
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    This is technically correct, but I guess lots of readers (like myself) will just skim over it and interpret both in the same way (in the "had" sense). However, "had" should be included anyway because it sounds better too. Its omission would be unnatural and suspicious. Feb 26 at 1:40
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    I think in the between X and Y, the more important change brought on by using had is the change in Y. One is "between that moment and a year prior to that moment", the other is "between now and a year prior to now". Removal of had completely changes the meaning of a year ago.
    – Ben Voigt
    Feb 26 at 19:01
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In the present context, it's not necessary to include 'had' in the sentence. Using 'had' would indicate the past perfect (pluperfect) tense, which is used for conveying a sequence of events. The simple perfect just conveys that an event occurred in the past. Either is a reasonable reading of your sentence. You can read more about past perfect here.

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    The first sentence is already in the past, so presumably the past-in-the-past would be appropriate, no?
    – Kevin
    Feb 26 at 5:06

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