Sequence Of Verb Tenses

Sometimes the time expressed in a main clause is different from the time expressed in a subordinate clause. This can confuse ESL students because they don’t know whether it is appropriate to use different tenses in the different clauses of a sentence. Modal verbs also convey a sense of time. They can be confusing too. We hope this lesson will be helpful to all students who are worried about using tense sequences correctly.

Rule 1

When the main clause is in the present or future tense, the verb of the subordinate clause can be in any tense. You just need to make sure that the meaning is conveyed accurately. Read the following sentences.

  • John will ask what I did with the money. (Main clause – simple future; subordinate clause – simple past)
  • John will ask what I am going to do with the money. (Subordinate clause – present continuous tense)
  • John will ask what I have done with the money. (Subordinate clause – present perfect tense)
  • John will ask what I had done with the money. (Subordinate clause – past perfect tense)

In all the sentences given above, the main clause (John will ask) is in the simple future tense. In this case, the subordinate clause can be in any tense. Your choice of tense should depend upon the meaning you want to convey. That’s all.

Now consider another set of examples. In this case, the main clause is in the simple present tense. Therefore, the subordinate clause can be in any tense.

  • He says will pay the dues. (Main clause – simple present tense; subordinate clause – simple future tense)
  • He says that he has paid the dues. (Main clause – simple present tense; subordinate clause – present perfect tense)
  • He says that he had paid the dues. (Main clause – simple present tense; subordinate clause – past perfect tense)
  • He says that he is going to pay the dues. (Main clause – simple present tense; subordinate clause – present continuous tense)

Rule 2

When the main clause is in the past or past perfect tense, the subordinate clause must be in the past or past perfect tense.

  • He said that he wanted to go. (NOT He said that he wants to go.) (Here the main clause (He said) is in the simple past tense and hence the subordinate clause, too, should be in the past tense.)
  • She said that she had paid the dues. (NOT She said that she has paid the dues.)
  • They asked me where I was going. (NOT They asked me where I am going.)

There are some exceptions to this rule. When the subordinate clause expresses a general truth, it can in the present tense even when the main clause is in the past tense.

  • The teacher said that the earth moved around the sun. OR The teacher said that the earth moves around the sun.
  • She said that she had cancer. OR She said that she has cancer. (The second sentence is possible as long as the fact that she has cancer is true.)
  • Copernicus proved that the sun was the centre of the universe. OR Copernicus proved that the sun is the centre of the universe.
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Manjusha

Hi, I am Manjusha. This is my blog where I give English grammar lessons and worksheets. You may also want to check out my other blogs IELTS Practice and NCERT Guides

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