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Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Words and Language Toolbox

On the sequence of tenses

By Paula LaRocque

Sequence of tense is a basic construct of English grammar that should pose few problems to professional writers but in fact poses many. The sequencing of tenses seems so poorly understood in most newsrooms that basic tense errors litter media writing of all kinds.

Examples of such errors:

• He said he believes them.

• She said she is leaving for Tibet next week.

• He said he thinks his officers acted appropriately.

Corrected:

• He said he believed them.

• She said she was leaving for Tibet next week.

• He said he thought his officers had acted appropriately.

Each of these sentences is in past tense (indicated by “said”), so subordinate verbs also would be past tense — or, in some cases, past perfect or conditional.

When a sentence that is already past tense includes something that occurred even earlier, the verb in that subordinate clause uses the past-perfect have or had. That is the case in the third example above: “He saidhe thought his officers had acted appropriately.” The officers’ action preceded the source’s reference to that action.

When a past-tense sentence refers to a future event, we often move to the conditional should, would or could. So the second example above (“said she was leaving for Tibet next week”) could also be “said she would go to Tibet next week.”

Expressed another way, we write in one dominant tense, with which verbs in secondary clauses ordinarily agree. Further, that tense is so dominant that issues of real time are also often subordinate to it. (Notice that the presence of the past-tense “said” in the second example above mandates the past-tense verb “was” even though the trip to Tibet is in the future.)

To recap:

When the verb in the main clause is present tense, verbs in subordinate clauses are also present tense: He says he despises it. She knows it is all over. They think it is time.

Likewise, when the verb in the main clause is past tense, verbs in subordinate clauses are also past tense: He said he despised it. She knew it was all over. They thought it was time.

Finally, when the verb in the main clause is past tense and verbs in subordinate clauses refer to future events, those subordinate verbs are often conditional.

Are there exceptions? Of course; this is English! The exception here is the “universal statement” or “ongoing truth.”

I believe a misunderstanding of what constitutes a universal statement leads to many of the media’s sequence of tense errors. “Universal statement” does not apply to a particular statement. Nor does it refer to any old statement that is still true. That someone is still going to Tibet next week doesn’t make that statement “universal.” It’s just a statement that happens to be true until or unless it isn’t true any longer. Contrast such particular statements with “the sky is blue” or “grass is green.” Those are universal statements.

Universal statements can be misleading or awkward with simple past-tense verbs; that’s why they’re often treated differently. For example, “He explained why the sky appears to be blue.” Sequence of tense rules would call for appeared — to agree with explained. But the sky’s blueness is an ongoing truth. Therefore, “appears” is better in this case (even though it violates tense sequence) because “explained why the sky appeared to be blue” could make it seem that the sky appeared to be blue only at that time.

In the sentence “She said she was going to Tibet,” the was is correct even though she is still going — nor does was suggest she is no longer going; it merely agrees with said. Further, going to Tibet is not a universal statement; it’s merely a statement that is still true. If it were not true or if it were contingent, it would be written differently. For example: “She was going to Tibet but changed her mind.”

This discussion is a simplification (perhaps over-simplification) that should help media writers with the most common of their sequence of tense confusions. But if I’ve aroused your curiosity and you want more — and, believe me, there’s plenty more — look up “sequence of tenses” in any good grammar book.

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words,” “Championship Writing” and a mystery novel, “Chalk Line.” Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com

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