Check this paragraph:

I had been working in the garden for an hour when I heard the phone ring. It was Jamie. He was driving down to London on business. I had gone out in the garden when he left, so he had only been gone an hour. I knew he had some problem.

My question : why "left"? To me all verbs in the last sentence "had gone out", "left" and " had been gone" happen before I heard the phone. So all should be in past perfect because I heard the phone is the reference time.

I know sometimes with since, you don't use past perfect:

I saw Peter yesterday, I hadn't seen him for a while since he left for Germany."

The word 'since' in that case indicates the beginning of the action. But when is not since and in that paragraph, first the person went out in the garden then Jamie left. Or may be I should understand the sentence like this:

He had only been gone for an hour since he left and at the time of the leaving I was already in the garden.

  • I think I had gone out in the garden when he left sounds better. The part When he left indicates the point in time (the moment he left). I had gone out should be in the past perfect to indicate that the act of "going out" happened before the even "I heard the phone ring". Apr 19, 2014 at 9:50
  • I agree with you but the act of leaving happens also before
    – Yves Lefol
    Apr 19, 2014 at 11:31
  • the phone rings
    – Yves Lefol
    Apr 19, 2014 at 11:34

1 Answer 1


In English it is common, and in some cases obligatory, for subordinate clauses to shift their tenseframe this way, in order to express a distinct relationship to the Reference Time (RT) established in the head clause.

In this case, for instance, your RT is as you say the time at which the phone rang. A past perfect signifies a state current at RT which arises out of a prior eventuality; for instance, I had gone out in the garden signifies that when the phone rang, the author was in the garden. There the prior eventuality is not focal but merely mentioned.

To speak focally of that prior eventuality, the author employs a simple past. In this context, in a subordinate clause (when he left), this is not understood as a deictic tense (one ‘pointed to’ from speech time) but as a relative tense: an eventuality prior to RT.

If the author had written when he had left the entire tenseframe would be shifted to the moment of Jamie’s departure, which is perfectly grammatical but just adds another level of ‘processing’ when the discourse reverts to the RT tenseframe with he had only been gone an hour.

  • What do you mean by"just adds another level of processing when the discourse.........hour.
    – Yves Lefol
    Apr 21, 2014 at 8:33
  • @user5577 a) You've established the past as your RT. You then have b)* a past perfect establishing a past relative to that - call it T2. You then c) introduce some form which refers not to T2 but an even more remote past T3, and then d) return to T2 with another past perfect. If T3 is a past perfect, you have to figure out what the past perfect means three times, at b, c and d. If T3 is a past, you only have two parsings: the past perfect once, at b, and the past once, at c. So the past perfect involves more mental processing. Apr 21, 2014 at 12:08

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