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Can I say,
(a) She wiped the table after she had had her dinner.
(b) She wiped the table after she had her dinner.

What does it mean "had had"? (a) and (b) are same in meaning? When do we use it?
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Your question caused me to learn something I'd never thought much about before.

From the following Web site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/learnitv343.shtml

"Note also that the contracted form of had had is 'd had.

She'd had a lot to drink and wasn't capable of walking home by herself.
After he'd had a good night's sleep, he felt much better.
She sacked him before he had had a chance to explain his behaviour.
By the time he was twenty he'd already had four different jobs.
I'd already had a word with Joan about re-locating to Manchester and now she's had time to think about it, she quite likes the idea."
How about my questions?
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I'll take a stab at it
Vincent Teo(a) She wiped the table after she had had her dinner.
There may have been a delay during the time between finishing dinner and wiping the table
Vincent TeoShe wiped the table after she had her dinner.
She wiped the table straight after finishing dinner
When do we use it?

This is one man’s opinion.

If we can’t sort out the mechanics on how, when and where to apply past perfect tense, it’s safe to assume that there will be always problems associated logic, tone and grammar in the usage as it may be used incorrectly or over-killed. In may instances of past perfect usage, it is not actually needed but by one’s using it unnecessarily, he may have in fact created result opposite of his expectations.

I had advised you several times on the issue in the past, but yet, you didn’t take it seriously.

Further Past | ------Advising -------| recent past ----failed to take advantage----| past

Past perfect is used to describe something happened in the past which spanned over a period of time and another event followed i.e.

I had served 3 years in The National Guard before I returned to school 2 years ago to finish my B.S. in Mechanical Engineering.
Vincent, both are fine.

The word "after" makes it COMPLETELY clear which order they happened in.

Compare: I twisted my ankle and looked to see why. I stepped in a rabbit hole. (Which came first? Maybe because I was limping after I twisted my ankle, I stepped carelessly.)

I twisted my ankle and looked to see why. I had stepped in a rabbit hole. (Here you need the past perfect to show that it happened prior to my twisting and looking.)

My only disagreement with Goodman is the "spanned a period of time" part. The prior action can be all be instant. I had to go home to change. I had sneezed and in doing so popped the buttons off my blouse. (But note: After I sneezed (simple past) and in so doing, popped a button off my blouse, I had to go home to change.)
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Hi GG,
I hope you have fixed your botton off your blouse. <<<>>>But note: After I sneezed (simple past) and in so doing, popped a button off my blouse, I had to go home to change.)
I said: spanned over a period of time = [I had served 3 years in The National Guard] ,
and another event followed = [before I returned to school 2 years ago ] to finish my B.S. in Mechanical Engineering
The sneezing incident is pure fiction. I couldn't think of anything more instantaneous than a sneeze, so I used it.

I still don't understand why you think an event needs to have a long duration for it to justfy the past perfect.

I went home to change. I had spilled my coffee all over my white blouse. -- The spill is instantaneous, and preceeded the trip home.
Grammar GeekI went home to change after I had spilled my coffee all over my white blouse. -- The spill is instantaneous, and preceeded the trip home.

GG,

Maybe it’s a misperception on my part. I agreed your example is prefectly legal (w/ a minor addition). Please correct me if I am wrong. Most people will likely treat recent events with a simple past tense, won’t they; especially when the event happened recently?

A-Where did you go? Your manager is looking for you!

B- I had to go home to change my clothes because someone turned the corner and knocked the cup of coffee I was holding all over me as I was coming out of the coffee room earlier this morning.
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