Following is the semantic rule of English grammar

When + Simple Past Tense + Past Perfect Tense or Past Continuous Tense

But I have seen many examples and texts that do not follow the rule. For example:

When I was a child, my parents bought me a dog.

In fact, it should be written as:

When I was a child, my parents had bought me a dog.

Is this an exception to the rule?

  • Hello and welcome. Please say where you found this 'rule', and cite an example or two that were used to illustrate the 'rule'.
    – Lawrence
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 9:13

2 Answers 2

  1. When I was a child, my parents bought me a dog.
  2. When I was a child, my parents had bought me a dog.

I disagree that 2 is correct. You shouldn't use a perfect tense here. You are talking about the moment in time where your parents made the purchase. This means that, at the time, the purchase was not yet completed.
You would only use a perfect tense if the activity (buying a dog) was already completed.

If your parents bought you a dog when you were 5 years old, it would be correct to say:

When I was 15, I did not misbehave. I loved my parents because they had bought me a dog [when I was 5].

You loved your parents because at the moment in time we are talking about (when you were 15) you were loving your parents. However, the purchase of the dog was already completed by the time you were 15 (since they had bought it when you were 5).

When I was 12, my parents had already bought me a dog.

You are not stating that your parents bought you a dog when you were 12. You are saying that they bought that dog before you were 12, because you are using a perfect tense.

The key here is that you need to consider the use of the perfect tense at the time. You are trying to compare it to the present (the year 2017); not the point in time you are talking about (your childhood).


The rule you quote is only applicable to sentences expressing two different actions taking place in two different time frames. In order for you to make clear that the the actions in a certain sentence are not simultaneous, you use for the action that is the most distant in time the past perfect simple tense, and for the action that is the closest to the present, you use the past tense simple. This is done for the sake of linguistic clarity within the temporal hierarchy of the narration at work in any such sentence.

But in your example, although the two actions (of your being a child and of your parents buying you a dog) seem to belong to different time frames, they actually don't because everything happens, as it were, during your childhood, which this sentence cannot split into separate time frames because of the very semantic value of the word childhood, which is a temporally homogeneous period of time.

So this is why you cannot use the past perfect simple tense in your sentence: because childhood admits of no temporal hierarchies as a day would through its different time frames such as morning, noon or evening.

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