1

I wore the dress I bought yesterday.

Both verbs are in the past simple (same sequence of time). But if I bought the dress 3 years ago, would it be possible to write this:

I wore the dress I had bought 3 years ago.
(to emphasize the gap between the buying and the wearing)

Consider:

The tree was planted by people who founded the city over 400 years ago.
(We don't know what was the first action the people did because both verbs are past simple.)

If I want to make clear that the foundation happened first, shall I write this?

The tree was planted by people who had founded the city over 400 years ago.

3

Neither of these is entirely correct, but this is a matter of the adverbial with ago.

Ago always measures the timespan it designates from the present moment, 'Speech Time'. Consequently it can only be used with a present-tense verb: a simple present or a present progressive. (But ago cannot be used with the present perfect, because ago explicitly locates the eventuality it modifies in the past, and that sort of reference is prohibited with the present perfect.)

To express a timespan extending back from a past reference time we use before instead of ago:

I wore the dress I had bought three years before.

This may not work in your second example, however, since we don't know when the tree was planted.

??The tree was planted by the people who had founded the city over 400 years before.

This means that they planted the tree 400 years before they founded the city, which seems unlikely. If you are want to say that they planted the tree after founding the city, you will have to say so expressly; the verb construction won't take care of it for you. In fact, I can't find a way to get all these ideas into one sentence without repeating one of them; this is the best I can come up with:

The people who founded the city over 400 years ago planted the tree shortly after the foundation.


The people, because the relative clause is restrictive and defines a specific group of people.

4
  • So we can say: I wear that dress today, I bought it 3 days ago . If I have well understood your explaination ago measures the gap between the past till the present moment. – user5577 May 3 '14 at 7:32
  • @user5577 Yes. And you can say "I wore that dress last night, I bought it three days ago." But if you put buy into the past perfect you say "I wore that dress last night, I had bought it two days before", not three! – StoneyB on hiatus May 3 '14 at 12:02
  • In the case with "before" the reference is yesterday (the past) and in the first case the reference is now. Would it be possible to write "I wore that dress last night,I bought it 2 days before." (as past perfect is optionnal with before)or is it absolutly necessary in that case.Another question if I bought the dress 3 years ago and I would like to use "before" in the sentence, shall I say: "I wore that dress last night, I had bought it 3 years minus one day before" .It seems to be complicated to use before here. – user5577 May 3 '14 at 17:34
  • @user5577 Yes, simple past will usually suffice, and you still use before. Generally '3 years' will be an approximation, but if you need this degree of precision most people would probably say "one day less than three years before." In either case, before is perfectly OK. You can also use earlier. – StoneyB on hiatus May 3 '14 at 17:37

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