Sequence of tenses

Sequence of tenses

In grammar, the sequence of tenses (known in Latin as consecutio temporum, and also known as agreement of tenses, succession of tenses, tense harmony, and backshifting) is a rule of a particular language governing the relationship between the grammatical tenses of verbs in related clauses or sentences to show the temporal relationship of the events to which they refer.

Latin

In the Latin language a primary tense (simple present tense, present perfect tense, simple future tense, or future perfect tense) in the superordinate clause is followed by primary tense in the subordinate clauses, and a historic tense in the superordinate clause (imperfect tense, perfect tense, or pluperfect tense) is followed by a historic tense in the subordinate clause.

Oratio obliqua

Greek

In the Classical Greek language, the tenses in subordinate clauses must correspond to those in the superordinate clauses governing them.

A principal tense (present tense, future tense, or future perfect tense) in the superordinate clause is followed by a principal tense in the indicative mood or subjunctive mood. Such a principal tense is followed by:

  • the present tense when the action of the subordinate verb refers to the same time as the superordinate verb
  • the perfect tense when the action of the subordinate verb has been completed before the time of the superordinate verb
  • the future tense when the action of the subordinate verb is in the future of the time of the superordinate verb

A historical tense (imperfect tense, pluperfect tense, or aorist) in the superordinate clause is followed by a historical tense in the indicative mood or optative mood. Such a historic tense is followed by:

  • the imperfect tense when the action of the subordinate verb refers to the same time as the superordinate verb
  • the pluperfect tense when the action of the subordinate verb has been completed before the time of the superordinate verb
  • the aorist
  • the future tense in the optative mood when the action of the subordinate verb is in the future of the time of the superordinate verb

English

In the English language there are several views as to the exact rules governing the sequence of tenses, particularly with respect to verbs in superordinate and subordinate clauses, and debate over this point amongst grammarians that goes back as far as the 18th century.

Natural sequence

One view is the natural sequence of tenses. According to this view, the tense of a verb in a subordinate clause is not determined by the tense of the verb in the superordinate clause, but is determined simply according to the sense of the clause taken apart from the rest of the sentence.

In this view, both of the following sentences are proper. The tense of the main verb "say" does not affect the tense of the subordinate verb "need", which remains in the present tense because it describes a continuing state of affairs.

Batman says that he needs a special key for the Batmobile.
Batman said that he needs a special key for the Batmobile.

Improper sentences, in this view, do not correctly express the author's intent. In the following two examples (the first from Macaulay) only the latter expresses the author's meaning clearly and correctly:

I had hoped never to have seen [the statues] again when I missed them on the bridge.
I had hoped never to see [the statues] again when I missed them on the bridge.

The rule for writers following the natural sequence of tenses can be expressed as follows: Imagine yourself at the point in time denoted by the main verb, and use the tense for the subordinate verb that you would have used at that time.

Attracted sequence

Another view is the attracted sequence of tenses. According to this view, the tense of a verb in a subordinate clause is determined by the tense of the verb in the superordinate clause. It is this view, and the problems that it causes, that has generated the most discussion amongst grammarians.

The attracted sequence can be summarized as follows: If the main verb of a sentence is in the past tense, then other verbs must also express a past viewpoint, except when a general truth is being expressed.

In the attracted sequence, therefore, the second of the Batman examples would be corrected so that the subordinate verb was in the past tense:

Batman said that he needed a special key for the Batmobile.

The attracted sequence rule causes problems for indirect speech or incorporated quotations. Proponents of the rule specify various circumlocutions to avoid these problems. One such problem is the following sentence, where the subordinate verb in the incorporated quotation is in the present tense, but is required to be in the past tense, per the main verb, in order to obey the attracted sequence rule:

Prime Minister Blair admitted that "such a policy is not without its drawbacks".

Proponents of this rule state that such sentences have to be corrected in one of two ways:

  • Rearrange the sentence such that the incorporated quotations become set off, possibly as direct speech:
  • :Prime Minister Blair did not claim perfection: "such a policy is not without its drawbacks", he admitted.
  • Cut down the incorporated quotation to exclude the verb:
  • :Prime Minister Blair admitted that such a policy was "not without its drawbacks".

References

Further reading

Latin

Greek

English

  • Walter Kay Smart English Review Grammar. New York: F.S. Crofts & co..
  • Rodger A. Farley "Sequence of Tenses: A Useful Principle?". Hispania 48 (3): 549–553.
  • Robin Lakoff "Tense and Its Relation to Participants". Language 46 (4): 838–849.
  • Paul Kiparsky The Construction of Meaning. CSLI Publications.
  • David DeCamp "Sequence of Tenses, or Was James Thurber the First Transformational Grammarian?". College Composition and Communication 18 (1): 7–13.

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