When Selena had rung her apartment bell, the girls were admitted – or rather, the door was drawn in and left ajar – by a colored maid with whom Selena didn't seem to be on speaking terms.

Source: J. D. Salinger – Just Before the War with the Eskimos

Is it necessary to use past perfect ("had rung") in the above sentence? Recently I was here advised that according to grammar, when there's a short action right after another short action, we use the past simple for both actions, e.g. "When I opened the door, children run in". I think that this pattern we can apply to my examplary sentence. Or not?

  • We can use the simple past for both actions, not we (must) use the simple past for both actions. In conversation one might say "When we rang the bell they let us in." We could also say "Only when we had rung the bell several times did they let us in."
    – TimR
    Sep 16, 2015 at 12:12
  • 2
    The purpose and meaning of a perfect construction are only evident in its context. A rule of thumb: don't ask about a perfect in a sentence without providing at least the preceding and following sentences, too. Sep 16, 2015 at 12:26

1 Answer 1


The Perfect Tense is justified, as you observed, when there is no immediacy between the events. Selena pressed the button (or pulled the cord), the bell probably rang for some time (even a few instances), then stopped ringing. The amount of time between the pressing of the button (or pulling the cord) and opening the door (or leaving it ajar) is not specific, and probably not important.

The important part is the fact that signal (of bell ringing) was received, interpreted, and some action taken some time after that. The completeness of act of ringing is more important to the author, so he used the Perfect Tense.

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