Although the various shades of time and sequence are usually conveyed adequately in informal speech and writing, especially by native speakers and writers, they can create havoc in academic writing and they sometimes are troublesome among students for whom English is a second language. This difficulty is especially evident in complex sentences when there is a difference between the time expressed in an independent clause and the time expressed in a dependent clause. Another difficulty arises with the use of infinitives and participles, modals which also convey a sense of time. We hope the tables below will provide the order necessary to help writers sort out tense sequences.
As long as the main clause's verb is in neither the past nor the past perfect tense, the verb of the subordinate clause can be in any tense that conveys meaning accurately. When the main clause verb is in the past or past perfect, however, the verb in the subordinate clause must be in the past or past perfect. The exception to this rule is when the subordinate clause expresses what is commonly known as a general truth:
The tables below demonstrate the correct relationship of tenses between clauses where time is of the essence (i.e., within sentences used to convey ideas about actions or conditions that take place over time).
Click HERE for a table describing the various tenses of the active voice.
Click HERE for a table describing tense sequences of infinitives and participles.
|Purpose of Dependent Clause/|
Tense in Dependent Clause
|To show same-time action, use the present tense||I am eager to go to the concert because I love the Wallflowers.|
|To show earlier action, use past tense||I know that I made the right choice.|
|To show a period of time extending from some point in the past to the present, use the present perfect tense.||They believe that they have elected the right candidate.|
|To show action to come, use the future tense.||The President says that he will veto the bill.|
|To show another completed past action, use the past tense.||I wanted to go home because I missed my parents.|
|To show an earlier action, use the past perfect tense.||She knew she had made the right choice.|
|To state a general truth, use the present tense.||The Deists believed that the universe is like a giant clock.|
|For any purpose, use the past tense.||She has grown a foot since she turned nine.|
The crowd had turned nasty before the sheriff returned.
|Future||To show action happening at the same time, use the present tense.||I will be so happy if they fix my car today.|
|To show an earlier action, use the past tense.||You will surely pass this exam if you studied hard.|
|To show future action earlier than the action of the independent clause, use the present perfect tense.||The college will probably close its doors next summer if enrollments have not increased.|
|For any purpose, use the present tense or present perfect tense.||Most students will have taken sixty credits by the time they graduate.|
Most students will have taken sixty credits by the time they have graduated.
Authority for this section: Quick Access: Reference for Writers by Lynn Quitman Troyka. Simon & Schuster: New York. 1995. Used with permission. Examples and format our own.
Unless logic dictates otherwise, when discussing a work of literature, use the present tense: "Robert Frost describes the action of snow on the birch trees." "This line suggests the burden of the ice." "The use of the present tense in Carver's stories creates a sense of immediacy."
Like verbs, infinitives and participles are capable of conveying the idea of action in time; therefore, it is important that we observe the appropriate tense sequence when using these modals.
|Role of Infinitive||Example(s)|
|To show same-time action or action later than the verb||Coach Espinoza is eager to try out her new drills. [The eagerness is now; the trying out will happen later.]|
|She would have liked to see more veterans returning. [The present infinitive to see is in the same time as the past would have liked.]|
(to have seen)
|To show action earlier than the verb||The fans would like to have seen some improvement this year. ["Would like" describes a present condition; "to have seen" describes something prior to that time.]|
|They consider the team to have been coached very well. [The perfect infinitive to have been coached indicates a time prior to the verb consider.]|
|Role of Participle||Example(s)|
|To show action occurring at the same time as that of the verb||Working on the fundamentals, the team slowly began to improve. [The action expressed by began happened in the past, at the same time the working happened.]|
|To show action occurring earlier than that of the verb||Prepared by last year's experience, the coach knows not to expect too much. [The action expressed by knows is in the present; prepared expresses a time prior to that time.]|
|Having experimented with several game plans, the coaching staff devised a master strategy. [The present perfect participle having experimented indicates a time prior to the past tense verb, devised.]|
Authority for this section: The Little, Brown Handbook by H. Ramsay Fowler and Jane E. Aaron, & Kay Limburg. 6th ed. HarperCollins: New York. 1995. By permission of Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc. Format and examples our own.
For help with tenses used in reporting speech (indirect quotations), we refer you to Mary Nell Sorensen's web-site at the University of Washington.