Sequence Of Tenses In A Complex Sentence


The tense of a verb in the subordinate clause should be in accordance with the tense of the verb in the main clause.

The sequence of tenses in a complex sentence

Rule 1

If the verb in the principal clause is in the present or the future tense, the verb in the subordinate clause could be in any tense, depending upon the sense to be expressed.

He says that she is ill.
He says that she was ill.
He says that she will be ill.
He will say that she is ill.
He will say that she was ill.
He will say that she will be ill.

Rule 2

If the verb in the principal clause is in the past tense, the verb in the subordinate clause will be in the corresponding past tense.

He knew that he would win.
She told me that she had been ill.
He was so scared that he could barely stand.

A past tense in the principal clause may be followed by a present tense in the subordinate clause when the subordinate clause expresses some universal truth or some habitual fact.

Copernicus proved that the earth moves round the sun.
The teacher told the boys that union is strength.
He told me that the Hindus burn their dead.

A past tense in the principal clause may be followed by a present or future tense when the subordinate clause is an adverb clause expressing place, reason or comparison.

He failed because he is weak in English.
A great city once stood where now lies the village of Rajgir.

When the subordinate clause is an adjective clause, any tense required by the sense may be used.

Yesterday I met a man who sells hats.
Yesterday I met a man who will sell me a hat.
Yesterday I met a man who sold me a hat.

In sentences where the subordinate clause is introduced by the conjunction of purpose that, the following rule is observed.

The verb in the subordinate clause must be expressed by may if the verb in the principal clause is in the present or future tense. The verb in the subordinate clause must be expressed by might if the verb in the principal clause is in the past tense.

study that I may pass.
will study that I may pass.
studied that I might pass.
eat that I may live.
will eat that I may live.
ate that I might live.

A future tense is not used in subordinate clauses beginning with when, until, before, after etc., if the principal clause is in the future tense.

I shall tell you when he comes. (NOT I shall tell you when he will come.)
shall wait till you return. (NOT I shall wait till you will return.)

A past tense is used after such expressions as if only, as if, it is time, wish that.

If only had a prettier face.
wish he would come.
It is time you started working.