When NOT to use “sequence of tenses”
Learning when not to apply sequence of tenses simplifies the concept and clarifies the reason for it.
Sequence of tenses does not come into play in direct quotations.
Example: “I choose not to vote in this election because I consider neither candidate to be worthy,” Jones said.
Or we could say:
“I choose not to vote in this election because I consider neither candidate to be worthy,” she said.
“Jones said” and “she said” are attribution tags. The only purpose of an attribution tag is to tie the information to a source. An attribution tag is not structurally part of the sentence; therefore, it is set off from the quoted sentence by commas. Although “said” is by far the best word of attribution, others may be appropriate under some circumstances. (See “said” entry in “Attribution Handling.”)
In the direct quote form, attribution tags need notbe at the end of the quote; they can precede the quote.
Example: Jones said, “I choose not to vote in this election because I consider neither candidate to be worthy,”
Or they can be placed in the middle of a quote, if such placement does not interrupt the flow of the quote (see “Or in-between”entry in “Attribution Handling”):
Example: “I choose not to vote in this election,” she said, “because I consider neither candidate to be worthy.”
It does not apply when the attribution
is not at the beginning of a setence:
In other than quoted material, where the attribution tag is placed determines whether the sequence of tenses rule would apply. For example:
A former player has been quoted in Sports Illustrated as making derogatory comments about the KU basketball program. A Kansan sports reporter is talking about the matter with a coach when the coach says, “He really, really disappointed me. I guess I sort of understand why he did what he did. It's his right to say that, of course, and all that. But I'll never trust him ever again.”
The reporter writes:
He understands why Jones did what he did but will never trust him again, the coach said.
Or he can put the attribution in the middle, if he does not interrupt the flow of the quote:
He understands why Jones did what he did, the coach said, but will never trust him again.
The player's name was used, the quote was shortened (paraphrased), the pronoun was changed from first to third person and the lead verb's number was altered to keep it in agreement with that change.
We could not say: The coach said, he understands why Jones did what he did but will never trust him again.
Neither should we say: The coach said he understands why Jones did what he did but will never trust him again.
There is not a rule of grammar that prohibits such usage (except for the use of the comma in the first example). But there is a convention of journalism involved here, and that convention leads us logically to an explanation of when we do use sequence of tenses.
A key to understanding this is found in the comma. Note that in the first two bolded examples above, the attribution is set off — must be set off; always is set off — by a comma or commas. By doing so, it makes the attribution non-restrictive (or non-essential to the ultimate meaning of the sentence).
In the last examples, there should not be a comma after “said” because, gramatically, “He” is the subject of the entire sentence, “said” is the verb, and what follows is, in essence, the “object” of the sentence, so it can't be separated by a comma. (And, as you'll know when you finish reading all about the sequence of tenses rule, because “said” is in the past tense, “understands,” therefore, must be in the past tense, too. So, it's “understood.”
The coach said he understood why Jones did wht he did but will hever trust him again.
Remember, you never (repeat, never) put a comma after the attribution at the beginning of a sentence — unless it introduces a direct quote or the attribution uses a device such as “According to” (see “Implied Past-Tense Attribution” in Sequence of Tenses, Part II).
Remember the previous paragraph, commit it to memory, and you’ll always get this “attribution thing” correct. And you’ll see it a lot this semester ” — and throughout your career.
It does not apply when the rule involves the habitual
or when it makes the speaker sound silly
When someone says something that, for all intent and purposes, is and has been now and forever, you can suspend the sequence of tenses rule. For example:
He said the sky is blue.
He said the Mississippi River flows north to south.
She said the sun rises in the east.
When it just sounds silly, either suspend the rule or rewrite the sentence. For example, this real-life example contributed by an editor at The Wichita Eagle:
“A man called the newspaper to say how upset he was about the Sunday story, 'Zoo swings into action to fix swaying bridge.' The call was from the man who fell from the bridge when it first opened. He said he was upset that the writer said he had a prosthetic arm. He is a veteran and still has that prosthetic arm. He wanted to know who her editors were and why she didn't check her facts. He was cussing a lot and threatened to cancel his subscription.”
So, please note: “He said he has a prosthetic arm” is perfectly OK because we certainly don't want to lose subscribers.
Seriously, the lesson here is to use common sense, which should always prevail.