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Author Topic: The need for tense shifts in cases of clause dependency  (Read 121 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: July 19, 2017, 09:24:22 AM »

The more tense shifts are talked about, the more questions are raised about the propriety of their use. The predominant school of thought appears to be that a sentence should have no tense shifts at all. This seems to me a strong indication of how poorly taught, how poorly understood, and how little appreciated the mechanisms of tense shifts are.


I will therefore reiterate here my position on the matter: contrary to popular belief, tense shifts in English aren’t undesirable at all and shouldn’t be deliberately avoided. Indeed, tense shifts are (1) a must for language to convey meaning with precision, and (2) an excellent means for logically showing a sequence of actions through time or for showing the cause-and-effect relationship of these actions. 

What must be avoided are inappropriate tense shifts, or those that result in grammatically wrong, semantically incorrect, or illogical statements. The rule to keep in mind is that actions that happen in the same time frame must use the same tense. Look at this sentence: “Last night the lovers kissed and made up, had made tentative plans for their wedding, and start quarreling again.” The past tense-past perfect-present tense combination here is totally unacceptable. Only the past tense used consistently in all the three clauses makes logical sense: “Last night the lovers kissed and made up, made tentative plans for their wedding, and started quarreling again.”

To manage tense shifts better, it’s best to adopt this general rule: Make a tense shift (1) to let the reader know that two or more actions or events happened or will happen at different times, and (2) where it matters, to convey with precision the time differences in the situations being described.

Tense shifts within a sentence are required in three specific cases:

(1) If the statement is about events or action happening at different times, a different tense with the appropriate verb form should be used for each event or action. Take this sentence: “I am writing in my diary how it was before I met you.” “I am writing” is in the present tense, and both “how it was” and “I met you” are in the past tense. Note that if the tense of the independent clause is changed to, say, past or future, the whole sense and tense scheme of the sentence changes. The independent clause in the past tense: “I wrote in my diary how it had been before I met you.” The independent clause in the future tense: “I will write in my diary how it was before I met you.” Such changes in tenses in complex or compound sentences, in fact, form the basis for the perfect tenses.

(2) If the subordinate clause is about something in a permanent state or condition, or about something that began in the past but continues to the present, the present tense should be used in that clause no matter what tense is used by the main clause. For example: “Ptolemy believed that the Sun revolves around the Earth.”  “Ptolemy believed” is in the past tense; “the sun revolves around the Earth” is in the present tense.” Another example: “Someone told my boss that I have a part-time job.” “Someone told my boss” is in the past tense, “I have a part-time job” is in the present tense because the speaker still holds that job. If the speaker no longer holds the job, of course, the correct statement should be: “Someone told my boss that I had a part-time job.”

(3) If the statement directly quotes someone, the tense of what was said shouldn’t be changed to agree with the main clause. For example: “Monica said just now, ‘I will fly to Singapore tomorrow with or without you.’” We really can’t fool around with the tense of the clause inside the quotations. Stated as an indirect quotation, however, the sentence becomes: “Monica said just now that she will fly to Singapore tomorrow with or without you.” If no specific future time-frames like “just now” and “tomorrow” are used, however, the sentence becomes: “Monica said that she would fly to Singapore with or without you.” This sentence uses the so-called future action in the past in indirect discourse.

However, if the flight was supposed to have been taken sometime in the past, say, last night, but the speaker did not know if in fact that flight was actually taken, the correct sentence should be: “Monica had said that she would fly to Singapore last night with or without you.” The sentence is now in the past participle.

In an extended prose composition or narrative, the main or base tense should be consistent all throughout, but tense shifts should be made whenever the time frame of the action changes.

This essay, 249th in the series, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the August 20, 2003 issue of The Manila Times, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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