Part II: Sequence of Tenses

The “not as simple,
but not that hard” part

    The normal and conditional sequences (which you should have read about now; if not, see “The Normal Sequence” and “The Conditional Sequence” under When to Use, Part I: The Simple Part) account for about 85 percent of the process we call sequence of tenses. 
    But time itself is not simply present, past or future; events occur at different times in both the past and future. Often it becomes important that we make those distinctions in chronology clear to the reader. 

Past perfect sequence
(Simple past and present perfect to past perfect) 

    Speakers frequently refer to the past or to past events when they are talking to a reporter. 

    Example: The speaker says: “I am happy to learn that I passed the exam.”

    If we change the present (am) to the past and do not also change the speaker's use of the past tense (passed), we lose the speaker's distinction between those past times. So, in addition to changing the speaker's present to past tense, we change the past to past perfect: 

    Example: He said he was happy (past) that he had passed (past perfect, something that happened before the “past” referred to previously in the sentence) the exam. 

    Similarly, when the speaker uses the present perfect tense we change it to the past perfect to make clear to the reader that the speaker was referring to an action completed earlier than the time of the interview. 

    Example: The speaker says: “I have received passing grades in all of my classes this year.” 
    We write it: He said he had received passing grades in all of his classes this year. 

    Adherence to this principle of sequence of tenses should not create a newspaper full of “had beens,” “had saids,” “had dones”or (shudder) “had hads,” which should be avoided in most cases. If the context of the sentence shows the order of events, the past perfect tense is made unnecessary. 

    Example: The speaker says: “I have the flu, and I had the flu last month.”
    We could write it: He said that he had the flu and that he had had the flu last month. 

    But because the speaker also told us when he had been sick, we could avoid the awkward past perfect had had and still make it clear that we are talking about two different points in time. 

    Example (we should write): He said that he had the flu last monthand that now he had it again.

Conditional perfect sequence
(Future perfect to conditional perfect) 

    Speakers also occasionally refer to events that will happen at different times in the future, particularly when they perceive a causal relationship between future events. When sources use both future and future perfect tenses, we cannot cast all of their comments in the conditional tense, because to do so would alter the speaker's meaning, as well as confuse the reader. 

    Example: The legislator says: “I probably will introduce that bill after Jones introduces his measure. In any event, I will have introduced it before the deadline for new bills.” 

    We might write it: Smith said that he probably would not introduce his bill until Jones had introduced his, but that he would have introduced it by the deadline. 

The exceptional sequence
(Normal sequence not appropriate) 

    We do not automatically make the subordinate verbs in reported speech sentences conform to the past form of the verb of attribution. When the subject matter of the dependent clause is always true, we retain the present tense. This rarity is the exceptional sequence.The exceptional, which is different from the habitual (discussed below), is reserved for things that are permanently true. 

    The scientist says: “The Earth revolves a round the sun.”

    The teacher says: “Triangles have three sides.” 

    We report it: The scientist said the Earth revolves around the sun. 

    And: The teacher told the class that triangles have three sides. 

    We DO NOT say: The scientist said the Earth revolved around the sun. (That just makes the scientist — and the writer — sound stupid.) 

    We DO NOT say: The teacher told the class that triangles had three sides. 

    That doesn’t sound or read as bad as “Earth revolved,” but it’s not the ideal because triangles always will have three sides, unless all those mathematicians invent a whole new way of doing things. That's not likely to happen, at least with triangles, unless the roots of English — “tri” equals “three” — are tossed aside, which isn’t going to happen either. 

    Some people argue that habitual things should be included in the exceptional sequence: The man said that he goes to church every Sunday. We reject this use because it ignores the philosophical base for the sequence of tenses. It should read: The man said that he went to church every Sunday. The man may have become an agnostic or have died since he told the reporter that, but the Earth still would be revolving around the sun and triangles still would have three sides. Therein lies the need for different rules for the exceptional and the habitual.

The present perfect tense
(Attribution not in the past tense) 

    Not all reported speech sentences egin with attribution in the past tense. The present perfect tense is acceptable in some circumstances. When the verb of attribution is cast in the present perfect, we treat it as present tense, not past. The present perfect construction often is a logical choice when the condition being described is habitual rather than perpetual, because it keeps the subordinate verbs in the present tense. 

    The president says: “You reporters distort my words.”

    We might report it: The president has charged that reporters distort his words. 

    We DO NOT say: The president has charged that reporters distorted his words. 

    The latter construction would alter the meaning of the quote significantly. By using the past tense, we would indicate that the president had said that reporter had distorted his words in the past, but not now in the present. So, unless that's what you meant to say, you'd use the first example.

Verbs that are not subordinate
(Retention of the present tense) 

    Not every verb in a reported speech sentence is automatically subordinate to the past tense verb of attribution. The sentence might contain a non-restrictive clause that includes a verb. Such a verb would not be subordinate to the verb of attribution and might need to remain in the present tense if the meaning of the clause s to be retained. 

    Example: The highway department spokesman said that the new highway, which connects three southeast Kansas cities to the turnpike, was closed in three places by flooding. 

    Example: A New Orleans hydrologist said flow of the Mississippi River, which runs through the city, dropped considerably last year. 

Implied past-tense attribution

    Most grammarians (and I agree, even though I don't count myself among grammarians) insist that when such phrases as “according to” and “in the opinion of” start sentences, they almost always are used in the past-tense context. Therefore, for example, the “New York Times Stylebook” holds that such attribution devices, though not inherently past tense, are governed by the rules that apply to the normal sequence. 

    Yes: According to the staff report, the police chief was responsible for the morale problem. 

    No: According to the staff report, the police chief is responsible for the morale problem. 

     Why, you ask? Because “according to” has strong implications that whatever to which it refers, particularly a printed document, is in the past.

Sequence of Tenses

When NOT to Use Sequence of Tenses

When to Use, Part I: The Simple Part

Tips (some that were covered and a few that weren't)

  Next |  Home