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Sequence of Tenses

When the principal clause is in the past tense

When the principal (main) clause is in the past tense, the verb in the subordinating clause also should be in the past tense.

  • He said (main clause) that he was not guilty (subordinate clause).
  • He asked (main clause) whether he might go home (subordinate clause).
  • She was so weak (main clause) that she could not stand (subordinate clause).

Exceptions

There are two exceptions to this rule.

Read the following sentences.

  • Copernicus proved (main clause) that the earth moves round the sun (subordinate clause).
  • The preacher said (main clause) that there is only one God (subordinate clause).
  • The teacher said (main clause) that honesty is always the best policy (subordinate clause).

The subordinate clauses in the examples given above indicate a universal truth something that is true for all time. When the subordinate clause expresses a universal truth, it may be put in the present tense, even if the principal clause is in the past tense.

Now consider the sentences given below.

  • He demanded a higher price (main clause) than I can pay (subordinate clause).
  • He liked him better (main clause) than he likes you (subordinate clause).

The subordinate clauses in the sentences given above come after the comparative conjunction than. When the subordinate clause comes after than, it may be put in any tense required by the context.

When the principal clause is in the present or future tense

When the verb in the principal clause is in the present or future tense, the verb in the subordinate clause may be in any tense that the context requires.

  • I maintain (main clause) that he is honest (subordinate clause).
  • I maintain that he was honest.
  • I maintain that he will be honest.
  • I shall maintain (main clause) that he is honest (subordinate clause).
  • I shall maintain that he was honest.
  • I shall maintain that he will be honest.

 

Sections In This Article
Sequence of Tenses
Sequence of Tenses in Subordinate Clauses
Sequence of Tenses - Exercise I

 

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