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Verb tense consistency in the English language

The sequence of tenses simply means that the tense of a verb in a subordinate clause must necessarily depend on the verb in the main clause.
For example, if the main sentence is in the past tense, it is simply not permissible for the subordinate to be written in the present tense. This topic is quite difficult to understand because to compose complex sentences successfully, you need to be aware of the features of all English tenses and ways of making their forms. You will find more detailed information below in this article.

General information about sequence of tenses

The sequence of tenses is a complex grammatical phenomenon that may be incomprehensible to foreigners, but those are the rules. Without knowledge of this topic, it is impossible to use the language productively.

The sequence of tenses implies the necessity of choosing the correct verb tenses in complex and compound sentences. This choice is made based on the tense in which the main sentence is constructed.

Remember

According to the English language rules, all compound sentences must be ordered according to the rules. That is why subordinate clauses are almost always used in one of the tenses of the main clause.

These rules are necessary to convey indirect speech correctly and harmonize the entire syntactic structure. This knowledge is also important for writing academic papers and other written works. Сorrect use of grammatical tenses in compound and complex sentences indicates a high English proficiency level.

Simultaneousness of actions

If both actions in the main and the subordinate sentences take place at the same time and belong to the same period, then the same tense is used in the subordinate clause.

Examples:

  • ✔️ His father came home early because he was tired.
  • ✔️ The seller realized that the buyer was cheating him.
  • ✔️ He studies a lot because his parents want him to become successful.

Previous actions

If the action in the main sentence occurred earlier than the action in the subordinate one, then we will use Past Perfect or Present Perfect in the main clause or Past Perfect Continuous or Present Perfect Continuous if the action was prolonged.

Examples:

  • ✔️ I was sure he had already flown in from Hungary.
  • ✔️ He remembered that she had forgotten her books on the shelf at the university.

Several subordinate sentences

There can be several subordinate clauses in the same sentence. They are also subject to certain rules. The choice of tenses for each sentence will depend on which of the sentences each of them is subordinate to.

Examples:

  • ✔️ He was sure the doctor said he would never be able to walk again.
  • ✔️ Henry lied that he did not know Anna had been dating his best friend.
  • ✔️ My father forgot that he asked me to tell the teacher that I would be in the hospital and would not be able to attend classes.

Absence of sequences of tenses

Although English sentences are constructed according to strict rules, there are exceptions that are important to remember.

This rule applies to the present and future tenses. If in a compound sentence the verb in the main sentence is used in one of the present or future tenses, then in the subordinate one, any tense may be used.

Examples:

  • ✔️ I am sure it will be very warm tomorrow, and we can go to the park.
  • ✔️ Everyone on our block knows that Tommy is a very reliable friend and just a decent person.

If the subordinate clause refers to some well-known fact or truth, then the present tense will be used in the subordinate clause, even if the main clause is in the past tense.

Examples:

  • ✔️ He learned that the grocer opens his store at 8 a.m.
  • ✔️ Newton dispelled all myths and proved that the Earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way around.
  • ✔️ In biology class, my classmates and I learned that the tomato belongs to the nightshade family.

Also, sequences of tenses are not observed if we use subordinate definition, comparison, reason, or result in a compound sentence.

Examples:

  • ✔️ I was recently given a novel that is considered a bestseller.
  • ✔️ Last month, my cousin ate too many oranges and went through a severe allergy.
  • ✔️ Last year, he achieved more athletic results than he does this year.

Conclusion

In this article, we learned basic information about sequences of tenses and learned about their use in different tenses. We also learned that there are exceptions to the general rules that we need to remember not to make mistakes in speaking and writing.

Now you know what signs determine the use of a particular tense, and we know how to manipulate this knowledge to compose complex sentences. Possessing this information will help us better navigate not only in syntactic constructions but also in the tenses of the English language.

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