In the following example:

  • He had walked away when she looked at him.

If it is correct then which event came first? "She looked at him" should come first before "He had walked away" but here to me, it sounds like he walked away before she looked at him. How would you explain this?

  • 1
    It's awkward and ambiguous phrasing. Just use "He had already walked away when she looked at him." if the walking away came first, or "He had walked away after she looked at him." if the looking came first. Jun 12, 2012 at 20:54

2 Answers 2


You need more context to truly say here. By itself, I would say that the sentence says he walked away and then she looked at him.

But if you start off with a sentence like below, it could be that they happen simultaneously, or he walked away immediately after she looked at him:

I was not able to catch up with him earlier. He had walked away when she looked at him.

  • 1
    Interesting. My first impression was that she looked at him, then he walked away. You could resolve the ambiguity "She looked at him, and then he had walked away" or "He had walked away by the time she looked at him."
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jun 11, 2012 at 18:26
  • It's the "when" that sets the frame of reference for me: "when she looked at him".
    – JeffSahol
    Jun 11, 2012 at 18:42
  • @KitFox: My first thought agreed with Jeff's, but after reading your comment, I can see how that's valid, too! It's kind of like a verbal version of this illusion.
    – J.R.
    Jun 11, 2012 at 18:44
  • @Jeff: Of course, one meaning of "when" is "after which" (NOAD), which is why KitFox's interpretation can work, too.
    – J.R.
    Jun 12, 2012 at 0:33
  • Your example could mean that he has already started walking when he starts to look at him.
    – Noah
    Jun 12, 2012 at 7:50

"He had walked away when she looked at him." seems to be an awkward expression.

"When" contracts time into an instance and treats its target as a singular moment.

For example, consider phrases:

When she died...
When the plane has landed..
When I get married...
When will it be possible? etc...

If I get the original intent, I would submit that the given phrase should be rephrased as:

By the time she looked at him, he had walked away

Or, if it is actually emphasizing the relationship of the two actions, as in he walked away (almost) as a result of her looking at him:

He walked away when she looked at him.

Or, to further emphasize the effect:

When she looked at him, he walked away.

The looking could be an actual cause of him walking away or an exclamative action within a grander context. That I will leave up to you to decide. :-)

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