Tenses in subordinate clauses

Sometimes there is a difference between the time expressed in the main clause and the time expressed in the subordinate clause. This can cause a great deal of confusion for ESL students. Many of them may also have difficulty using infinitives and participles correctly.

The rules given below will help students understand tense sequences better.

Overview

When the verb in the main clause is in the past or past perfect tense, the verb in the subordinate clause must be in the past or past perfect tense. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but we will discuss them later.

Study the examples given below.

  • She said that she would go. (NOT She said that she will go.)
  • He asked if I was interested in the offer. (NOT He asked if I am interested in the offer.)
  • The phone rang while I was having a bath. (NOT The phone rang while I am having a bath.)

When the verb is not in the past tense

When the verb in the main clause is in neither the past tense nor the past perfect tense, the verb in subordinate clause can be in any tense that expresses the meaning accurately.

The examples given below demonstrate the correct relationship of tenses between clauses.

When the tense in the main clause is in the simple present tense

When the main clause is in the simple present tense, the subordinate clause can be in any tense.

1. Use present tenses in the subordinate clause to talk about an action that occurs at the same time.

  •      Susie always arrives just when I start work.
  •     The telephone always rings when I am having a bath.

2. Use a past tense in the subordinate clause to refer to an earlier action.

  •     I know that I made a mistake.
  •     I know he was a dangerous criminal.
  •     I know exactly what you meant.
  •     They believe that she was a German spy.

3. Use a present perfect tense in the subordinate clause to talk about an action that occurred at an indefinite point of time in the past.

  •     I believe that I have made the right choice.
  •     She suspects that they have left the country.

4. Use a future tense in the subordinate clause, to refer to an action that is yet to take place in the future.

  •     The committee says that it will oppose the proposal.
  •     It is unlikely that he will win.

When the verb in the main clause is in the simple past tense

1. Use a simple past in the subordinate clause to talk about another action completed in the past.

  •      He tidied the lounge while I cooked lunch.
  •     I didn’t get the job because I lacked the required skills.
  •     The Greek believed that the sun went round the earth.

2. Use a past perfect tense in the subordinate clause to refer to an earlier action.

  •     She realized that she had made a mistake.
  •     She told me that she had received the parcel.

3. Use a present tense in the subordinate clause to state a general truth. A past tense is also possible.

  •     Magellan proved that the earth is / was round.
  •     The teacher said that honesty is / was the best policy.
  •     He proved that the earth goes / went round the sun.

When the verb in the main clause is in the present perfect tense

1. Use simple past verb forms in subordinate clauses instead of present perfect tenses.

  •     I have usually liked the people I worked with.
  •     Where have you been since I last saw you?
  •     I haven’t seen her since she moved to New York.

2. The present perfect tense is also possible in a few cases.

  •     I have usually liked the people I have worked with.

When the verb in the main clause is in the past perfect tense

Use simple past in the subordinate clause.

  •     She had left before I arrived.
  •     The crowd had turned violent before the police arrived.

When the verb in the main clause is in the future tense

1. Use present tenses in the subordinate clauses to refer to the future.

  •     I will write to you when I have time. (NOT I will write to you when I will have time.)
  •     We will stay here until the plane takes off.
  •     I won’t be surprised if she doesn’t recognize him
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