I am familiar with tense simplification in subordinate clauses:

He went out after he put on his coat.

instead of had put, because the conjunction after makes it clear that the action of putting on the coat happened earlier, so it is redundant to also indicate it by using the perfect instead of the simple aspect of the tense (past perfect rather than a past simple).

Does the same line of reasoning apply to

He was arrested because he murdered his neighbour.

instead of had murdered, as the conjunction because establishes a reason-result relationship between the main clause and the subordinate clause, and it should go without saying that reason precedes result, or doesn't it? Isn't it obvious that, at the time of the arrest, the murder had already happened?

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    If this question is not about English usage, what is it about, then? (to the one who voted for closing the question!)
    – user58319
    Nov 28, 2019 at 14:33
  • //He was arrested because he murdered his neighbour.// Looks correct, because the reason for arrest is that matters, and not the time - whether near past or long past.
    – Ram Pillai
    Nov 28, 2019 at 14:36
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    There is no such thing as "tense simplification". The perfect construction is used for specific purposes, and this is not one of them. That's all; it's not a "tense", and it doesn't need to be "simplified"; it's not there to start with. Nov 28, 2019 at 14:51
  • @JohnLawler: … which I am aware of, otherwise, why would I have written "using the perfect ASPECT instead of the simple aspect of the tense"?! The question remains, however: do "He was arrested because he murdered his neighbour." and "He was arrested because he had murdered his neighbour." mean the same thing, and if they do, which is used more commonly... ? (Poor?) grammar books do use the phrase "tense simplification"... And I am asking to get an answer, not a thrashing!
    – user58319
    Nov 28, 2019 at 17:10
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    Those two sentences can both report the same activity. If one is true the other is true, and if one is false the other is false. That's as close as you can get to "meaning the same thing". Anything else is context-sensitive pragmatics and not sentential "meaning". As for which construction is more common in writing, Google will tell you; in spoken English, my guess is that the perfect would be less common, simply because it's longer and more complex and unnecessary in this context. For better than a guess, you'd need a sociolinguistic survey. Nov 28, 2019 at 18:16

1 Answer 1


He went out after he put his coat on.

Here we have a sequence of two events, both in the past. The preposition "after" makes the order of the sequence quite obvious.

He went out after he had put his coat on.

There is a sequence here, but it is not directly a sequence of events. The construction "went" expresses an action, but the construction "had put" expresses a resultative state which attaches to the agent. The action of the verb to put exists in this sentence only as an implication (or perhaps entailment) one inferential step beyond what is directly expressed.

If I have put my coat on (in the present perfect), it must be that I put my coat on (in the past indefinite) to attain that state.

The former example isn't a simplification of the latter. If anything, the latter is a complication of the former. Without further context, I can see no reason to evoke the resultative state. The direct sequence of actions is clear and sensible.


The same reasoning can be applied here, although the conclusion might be different:

He was arrested because he murdered his neighbor.

Again, we have a sequence of events. The preposition "because" makes the order of the sequence obvious. An effect cannot logically precede its cause.

He was arrested because he had murdered his neighbor.

Just as before, the perfect aspect is appropriate when the state of the agent is more relevant than the action. The sequence of events remains the same. The action is entailed and must precede the state which it produces in the agent. So, does the action or the state have more relevance?

He was arrested because he is a murderer.

This version of the sentence doesn't even use the verb to murder. The subject's state is the only thing expressed here, and it's expressed with the copula and a common noun in the subordinate clause .

In all three versions, it is obvious that the action of murdering was in the past at the time of the arrest -- even in the absence of the verb to murder. In the last version, the subject's state must have relevance since it is the only thing directly expressed.

"Tense simplification" is itself an over-simplification. The subordinate clauses "because he murdered his neighbor" and "because he had murdered his neighbor" carry very similar semantics, but they are subtly distinct. In this case, without further context, I see no clear reason to prefer one over the other.

I do see reason to claim that all three versions are clear, natural, well-formed, grammatically sound and quite sensible utterances. None of them obscure the proper order of events.

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    fine... and what, then, does the 'subtle distinction' distinction between these two subordinate clauses consist in?
    – user58319
    Jan 2, 2020 at 23:01
  • It is possible to interpret the second differently: Suppose a murder is discovered. There are two suspects Al and Barry. The police have evidence that suggests that whoever is responsible for this murder had been in jail before for the murder of their neighbor. They know that Al has been previously been in jail while Barry hasn't. So Al was arrested because he had murdered his neighbor.
    – Jim
    Jan 3, 2020 at 0:36
  • "Again, we have a sequence of events. The preposition "because" makes the order of the sequence obvious. An effect cannot logically precede its cause." [Emphasis added] As far as I see, the bolded part is wrong. We can have "He is happy because he is visiting his grandparents tomorrow" in which the order of the events is the other way round. Apr 3, 2020 at 7:47
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    @HeWhoMustBeNamed: He is happy because of the idea/perspective of visiting his parents. The idea appeared which, then, made him happy... the reason comes before or at the same time as the result, not after it!
    – user58319
    Jan 31, 2021 at 11:12

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