For example, I was asked to fill in passive verbs in the following:

Great damage _____ (do) when the country _____ (rock) by an earthquake.

"The country" suggests occurrence in a past tense. Can I use the present perfect or past perfect after "when"?

  • Great damage was done when the country has been rocked by an earthquake - I'm not sure because it isn't necessary relates to the present but does omits a specific time of occurrence
  • Great damage was done when the country had been rocked by an earthquake - it is suggested that the two actions happen approximately very close to each other which is not past perfect.
  • 2
    For practical purposes, the rocking and the damage were simultaneous; with simple past was done in the main clause I'd put simple past was rocked in the when clause. Feb 24, 2016 at 17:36
  • 1
    @J. Bakk: The noun-phrase "the country" says nothing about the time. The definite article merely refers to a particular country. A doomsayer could warn "Great damage will be done when the country is rocked by an earthquake". When when yokes a subordinate clause to the main clause, the time of the clauses is the same. "I'll be there when she gets home."
    – TimR
    Feb 24, 2016 at 18:08

1 Answer 1


I can imagine several possibilities:

  1. Great damage was done when the country was rocked by an earthquake. (This was my very first and immediate thought.)

  2. Great damage will be done done when the country is rocked by an earthquake. (credit: @TRomano) - forecasting what will happen

  3. Great damage had already been done when the country was rocked by an earthquake. --> Great damage had already been done (by the floods in December) when the country was rocked by an earthquake, just another disaster in the long line.

Your examples do not sound natural. The first one is incorrect and the second sounds too artificial.

As for your question in the title whether the word when restricts you from using certain tenses, see e.g. https://english.stackexchange.com/q/35161/73094. Generally, when is related to time, whilst if is related to condition, however there are use cases where both may be used and their meaning is close. You cannot use when if the meaning is purely hypothetical.

  • The third one doesn't work; "were" does not agree with the singular "country" at all. Feb 24, 2016 at 20:57
  • For #3, you'd have to say "would be done if the country were rocked..." or "would have been done if the country had been rocked..."
    – TimR
    Feb 24, 2016 at 21:28
  • Your third example is wrong. I'll give you a +1 once you correct it. "..the country were" doesn't make sense.
    – Abs
    Feb 24, 2016 at 22:23
  • @NathanTuggy, Abs of course you are right, stupid me. Fixed Feb 25, 2016 at 5:43
  • @TRomano The constraint is to use "when" and not "if", so your example from your comment, however grammatically correct as well as making perfect sense, cannot be applied. I you missed my point as for the meaning of #3. I fixed the sentence, no more subjunctive there. Sorry for confusing you by my mistake. Feb 25, 2016 at 5:48

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