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"I was looking for my watch which had been stolen earlier" or should it be- "I was looking for my watch which was stolen earlier"

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    As usual, it's up to the speaker because there's no meaning difference and they're both grammatical. Where do people get the idea that the tense of one clause determines the tense in another, and forbids some? Aug 28, 2022 at 17:16
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    None of the tenses with stolen is a continuous tense. They're passive tense but not continuous' a continuous tense would be which was being stolen earlier. Aug 28, 2022 at 17:25
  • I suspect some grammar books say the former but either sounds fine to me, and the latter sounds more usual in informal contexts. With a word like earlier, there's no ambiguity.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 28, 2022 at 17:26
  • Sometimes the tense of one clause determines the tense in another. And sometimes, changing the tense can have unintended meanings for language learners. "It just doesn't matter what tense you use in a subordinate clause" is bad advice.
    – BadZen
    Jul 31, 2023 at 2:27

4 Answers 4

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I don't think that "was looking" is a continuous tense. Regardless, both of these are correct:

I was looking for my watch which had been stolen earlier.

I was looking for my watch which was stolen earlier.

I would probably add a comma in the first, but I suppose it depends on the context.

I was looking for my watch, which had been stolen earlier.

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  • The comma isn't optional. (If the determiner "my" was not present, either with or without would be acceptable.)
    – BadZen
    Jul 31, 2023 at 2:35
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Both are correct.

To avoid confusion you can use the first one (...had been stolen earlier.)

[ The watch had been stolen. - past perfect, passive voice (NOT past perfect continuous)

The watch was stolen. - simple past, passive voice (NOT past continuous) ]

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If the context is that this is a recent event, and your watch is still missing, then, rather than past perfect or simple past, most natural would be to use present perfect:

I was looking for my watch which has been stolen.

The simple past can also substitute for present perfect where the function is event in the past with result in the present, as is the case with a currently missing watch, so "was stolen earlier" also works.

But if the whole story is in the past, and the watch is now either long gone or retrieved, you should use past perfect to indicate that the stealing happened before the looking, and that the stealing is not relevant to the present.

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In your example both actions take place in the past. However, one of them precedes the other, and you feel (correctly) that you need to do something to indicate that.

The past perfect is one way of doing it: it shows clearly that the watch was stolen before you started looking for it. It is the most logical approach, but hardly the only one.

In your second version, the key word is "earlier." It achieves the same goal as the past perfect.

Substitute "three months ago" or "last January" for "earlier," and the result is still the same.

Note that when you use the past perfect, the "earlier" part is not even necessary:

"I was looking for my watch which had been stolen from me."

So long as the chronological order is preserved, either way is grammatically correct.

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    I think this answer misleadingly implies that the speaker must include something to reflect the fact that the waytch must have been lost before it could be looked for. He doesn't. Aug 28, 2022 at 18:23

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