Sequence of Tenses: Using Time Words Correctly in English
Sequence of Tenses
All languages have a way of keeping the meaning of a statement clear. If we are talking about something that someone told us yesterday, we can make it clear whether he told us about something that had already happened, or if he reported what happened to him at the time of his report or what he expected to happen the next day. This is the sequence of tenses: the following of one statement to another, the making sense of the expressions of time in the sentences. From now one when we say tense, it means the time (in the present, past, or future) expressed in the verb.
English has only two tenses which are shown by changes in the verb alone, present (as in “he sings”) and past (as in “he sang”). Other English language tenses are marked by other words called “auxiliaries”, or helping words.
If you understand six basic tenses you will be able to re-create much of the reality of time in your writing. The six are:
- Simple Present: They walk
- Present Perfect: They have walked
- Simple Past: They walked
- Past Perfect: They had walked
- Future: They will walk
- Future Perfect: They will have walked
The tense of a verb in subordinate clauses changes in accordance with the tense of the verb in the main clause.
In clearer language this means: The tense of a verb in all parts of the sentence have to change according to the tense of the verb in the most important part of the sentence. The word “subordinate” means something is of a lower order or category. Therefore, a subordinate clause is not the most important or main part of the sentence. It is subordinate or dependent because it is of a lower order than the main clause and it depends on it to make sense. Remember the word “subordinate” while reading what follows.
First we will look at a few simple rules that will help you in your writing. Later we will look at other more complex situations. The basic rules are as follows:
1. THE FIRST RULE USUALLY CAUSES NO PROBLEM TO ENGLISH LEARNERS.
If the verb in the principal clause is in the present or the future tense, the verb in the subordinate clause may be in any tense, depending upon the sense to be expressed.
If the main verb is in the present tense, he is speaking to me now and:
He says that his brother is sick.
He is informing me NOW that his brother is sick NOW
He says that his brother was sick.
He is informing me NOW that his brother WAS sick yesterday
He says that his brother will be sick.
He is informing me NOW that his brother WILL BE sick tomorrow
If the main verb is in the future tense, I predict that::
He will say that his brother is sick.
He will inform me that his brother is sick AT THE TIME HE TALKS TO ME.
He will say that his brother was sick.
He will inform me that his brother WAS sick yesterday
He will say that his brother will be sick.
He will inform me that his brother WILL BE sick tomorrow
2. HOWEVER, THE SECOND RULE IS OFTEN BROKEN.
If the tense in the principal clause is in the past tense, the tense in the subordinate clause has to be in the past tense.
Many learners do not realize that the words would and could are the past tense of the verbs will and could.
He said that he would come. It is wrong to say: He said that he will come.
I knew that he could not pass. It is wrong to say I knew that he can not pass
There are, nevertheless, a few exceptions to this rule.
1. A past tense in the main clause may be followed by a present tense in the
subordinate clause when the subordinate clause expresses some truth that is not limited to the time of the statement in the past.
Galileo proved that the earth moves round the sun.
My mother told us that honesty is the best policy.
The professor told me that the Hindus burn their dead.
2. A subordinate clause expressing place, reason or comparison may be in any tense, according to the sense to be expressed.
He didn’t get the job because his English isn’t good.
A fishing village once existed where now you can see the city of Mumbai.
That person who once was a little girl in rags will be the new Prime Minister of Neverlandia.
3. If the subordinate clause is an adjective clause (a group of words that says something about a person or thing), it may be in any tense according to the sense of the sentence.
Yesterday I met a man who sells balloons.
Meaning: Selling balloons is his occupation.
Yesterday I met a man who sold me a balloon.
Meaning: I bought a balloon from him yesterday
Yesterday I met a man who will sell balloons to the supermarket.
Meaning: He has a plan for the future to sell to the supermarket.
3. THE THIRD RULE IS CLEAR AND EASY This is an easy rule, but is important for English learners to learn. If it is not followed, the speaking or writing will be noticed as an error that only foreigners make.
If the principal clause is in the future tense, we do NOT use future tense in
subordinating clauses beginning with the words such as when, until, before, after etc.
I will call you when dinner is ready. (NOT I will call you when dinner will be ready.)
I shall wait until you return. (NOT I shall wait until you will return.)
4. THE PERFECT TENSES Problems in sequencing tenses usually occur with the perfect tenses, all of which are formed by adding an auxiliary or auxiliaries to the past participle, the third principal part of the verb.
This tense is common not only in English but also in many European languages, such as French, Spanish, German, Russian etc.
- ring, rang, rung
- walk, walked, walked
- say, said,said,
- do, did, done
- go,. went gone
- look, looked, looked
The most common auxiliaries are forms of the verbs: “be,” “can,” “do,” “may,” “must,” “ought,” “shall,” “will,” “has,” “have,” “had,” and they are the forms we shall use in this most basic discussion.
Present Perfect The present perfect tense consists of a past participle (the third principal part) with a form of the auxiliary verb “to have”” It describes an action which began in the past but which continues into the present or whose effect still continues.
Luann taught for ten years. (simple past)
This implies or gives us the idea that she no longer teaches.
Luann has taught for ten years. (present perfect)
This implies or gives us the idea that she is still teaching.
The implication in (1) is that Betty has retired; in (2), that she is still teaching.
The past perfect tense designates action in the past just as simple past does, but the action of the past perfect is action completed in the past before another action.
Peter bought cars and sold them. (simple past)
Peter sold cars that he had painted. (past perfect)
This clarifies that the cars were painted before they were sold.
Ray washed the car when Mary came. (simple past)
This implies or gives us the idea that Ray didn’t wash the car until Mary arrived and then he washed the car
Ray had washed the car when Mary came. (past perfect)
This implies or gives us the idea that he had already finished washing the car by the time she arrived.
The future perfect tense designates action that is expected to be completed at some set time in the future.
Friday I will finish my cooking for the party. (simple future
This simply states that I will finish on Friday.
By Friday noon, I will have finished cooking for the party. (future perfect)
This implies or gives us the idea that I will finish cooking for the partyby Friday
Review the Perfect Tenses
Judy saved thirty dollars. (past)
- Judy will save thirty dollars. (future)
- Judy has saved thirty dollars. (present perfect)
- Judy had saved thirty dollars by the end of last month. before she left home. (past perfect)
- Judy will have saved thirty dollars by the end of this month. (future perfect)
5. THE TENSES IN CONDTIONAL SENTENCES
Conditional (“if”) sentences normally have two parts.
One part shows a result and the other shows a condition on which the result depends. The condition is normally
preceded by the word “if”. For example: “If he eats, he’ll get stronger.”
the result is “he’ll get stronger” and the condition
(introduced by “if”) is “he eats.”
For example: “He got angry if he didn’t get what he wanted,”
the result is “he got angry” and the condition
(introduced by “if”) is “he didn’t get what he wanted.”
There are two main types of conditional sentences: real
and unreal (sometimes called “conditions contrary to fact”).
Real conditional sentences refer to situations that are either true or possible. They may be real conditions in the present or in the past, as in the sentences of above” “If he eats” is in the present. “If he didn’t get what he wanted” is in the past.
In the next section you will see how a new writer of English makes a mistake with a simple real condition.
Unreal conditionals refer to situations that are untrue, impossible or hypothetical; for this reason conditional sentences of this type are often described as being “contrary to fact”.
We’ve already looked at real conditional sentences. Now let’s take a look at the unreal ones.
There are different types of unreal conditional sentences according to the time that they refer to. However, despite the time of the verb in the condition, the situations that they show are unreal, hypothetical, and contrary to fact.
The first type of unreal conditional is used for present and future time.
In these sentences the condition can be followed by the result, or the result can come first followed by the condition.
NOTICEIn these sentences the condition is shown by the verbin the past tense, although the condition takes placein the present. The result usually has a form of the word “would”. Look at the example sentences until you see this clearly!
If I were a diplomat, I’d travel around the world.
I’d travel around the world if I were a diplomat.
(I’m not a diplomat, so I can’t travel around the world.)
If she were here today, she’d help you.
He’d help you if he were here today.
(She isn’t here today, so she can’t help you.)
If the horse were smaller, I’d buy it.
I’d buy it if the horse were smaller.
(The horse is big, so I won’t buy it.)
If I had a passport, I’d travel around the world.
I’d travel around the world if I had a passport.
(I don’t have a passport, so I can’t travel around the world.)
If you asked him, he’d help you.
He’d help you if you asked him.
(You haven’t asked him, so he can’t help you.)
If governments protected human rights, their citizens would be happy.
Citizens would be happy if their If governments protected human rights.
(Many governments don’t protect human rights, so their citizens are not happy.)
NOTICE: As mentioned in the previous notice, in the sentences of above there is a difference in tense and time. The verb of the condition is in the past tense, although the situation is in present or future time). This difference in tense and time signals that the situation is unreal, hypothetical, and contrary to fact.
But be careful! Some new writers use a past tense of the verb in real conditional sentences. For example:
I must pass the test. If I didn’t pass it, that means I couldn’t take my major courses. This an unnecessary complication. Surely the new writer is confusing the rule of the past tense for unreal conditional sentences. I think that what she wanted to write was: “If I don’t pass the test, I can’t take my major courses. Everything is in the present and it written the same way we think about the condition.
1. In casual conversation and very informal writing, the word “was” is often used instead of were.
2. In unreal conditionals,the words “could” and
“might” are also possible:
If I were a diplomat, I could travel around the world.
I might travel around the world if I were a diplomat.
If she were here today, she could help you.
He might help you if he were here today.
If the horse were smaller, I could buy it.
I might buy it if the horse were smaller.
3. If would shows willingness, it may appear in both the condition and the result:
If she would study, she would get good grades.
(She isn’t willing to study, so she probably won’t get good grades.)
If Shlomo would eat pork, we might ask him
(He isn’t willing to eat pork, so we don’t ask him to dinner.
4. Would cannot be used in the condition if it doesn’t refer to willingness:
If I would be young, I would have more energy. If he would have enough time, he would help you.
Conditional Sentences An important place of the perfect tenses is in sentences that talk about possibilities and conditions. These are very important and have to be perfectly expressed in your writing. These expressions are formed with all the perfect tenses: the present perfect, the past perfect, and the future perfect.
In sentences expressing condition and result, the past perfect tense is used in the part that states the condition. This part can come first in a sentence before the result, or the result can come before the condition.
An example which uses the present perfect.
If I had done my exercises, I would have passed the test.
The condition was doing my exercises. The result was passing the test.
An example which uses the past perfect.
I think George would have been elected if he had talked to the Press.
The condition was talking to the Press. The result was being elected.
An example which uses the future perfect.
If I am lucky I will have finished the job by December.
The condition is being lucky. The result is finishing the job.
Notice that the writer is thinking of December, and states that the ongoing job will be finished by December
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Source by Frank Gerace