The Grammarphobia Blog

When the present is past

Q: I’m trying to figure out this sentence: “Something Grandma let me do that my parents wouldn’t is/was eat cake.” Which is it? I spent an hour online looking for the answer, and now I’m more confused than before!

A: Let’s reduce your sentence to its relevant parts: “Something Grandma let me do was/is eat cake.” (The intervening clause, “that my parents wouldn’t,” does not affect the grammar here.)

Do we choose “was eat cake” because the principal verb (“let”) is in the past tense? Or do we choose “is eat cake” because at the time Grandma allowed it, the question of cake-eating existed in the present?

You might argue either way. But since you’re talking about something Grandma allowed in the past (and probably the distant past), we think “was” is the better choice: “Something Grandma let me do was eat cake.”

Note that we said “the better choice,” not “the grammatically correct choice.” In our opinion, “was” is more natural here, but we’ve found no hard-and-fast rule about this, at least not one that’s convincing.

A similar but harder question has to do with a situation that is relevant to the present, but is mentioned in the past tense because the sentence’s main verb is in the past tense. This is what we mean:

“Pasteur believed that intense heat was the key to killing bacteria” (it still is the key) … “Skeptics denied that the Earth revolved around the sun” (it still does) … “Claire didn’t know where Idaho was” (it’s still there).

The grammarian Otto Jespersen says that in this kind of sentence even an “eternal truth” may be expressed in the past tense. He cites the example “My father convinced me that nothing was useful which was not honest.” (Essentials of English Grammar, 1931.)

And we find the linguist Renaat Declerck saying much the same 60 years later. “Contrary to what is sometimes claimed,” he writes, “the past tense can be used even if the complement clause expresses an ‘eternal truth.’ Using the present tense is never obligatory.” (Tense in English, 1991.)

In fact, the tense in the lesser clause is more likely to echo the past tense of the main clause. Or, as Declerck puts it, “temporal subordination is the default choice.”

Jespersen gives these examples of cases in which the situation in the second clause is still relevant to the present, and yet the past tense is used: “I tried to forget who I was” and “What did you say was your friend’s name?”

Obviously, the speaker could just as well have used the present tense, but didn’t. Why not?

Jespersen suggests that frequently the use of the past tense here “is due simply to mental inertia: the speaker’s mind is moving in the past, and he does not stop to consider whether each dependent statement refers to one or the other time, but simply goes on speaking in the tense adapted to the main idea.”

“A typical example,” Jespersen writes, “is found when the speaker discovers the presence of someone and exclaims, ‘Oh, Mr Summer, I didn’t know you were here.’ ”

Jespersen, Declerck, and others suggest that this sort of tense adaptation is especially common in indirect or reported speech—that is, a second-hand report of what someone said.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says that in the following examples of reported speech, the choice of tense in the second clause is optional:

“Jill said that she had too many commitments” … “Jill said that she has too many commitments.”

Both sentences are correct, though the first suggests that Jill had too many commitments in the past, while the second suggests that she may still have too many.

As the Cambridge Grammar says, “the two reports do not have the same meaning, but in many contexts the difference between them will be of no pragmatic significance.”

However, in the sentence “Jill said she had/has a headache,” the book notes that “Jill’s utterance needs to have been quite recent for has to be appropriate.”

Declerck says the decision about the tense of the secondary clause “will generally be based on pragmatic considerations.” For instance, a speaker might shift to the present tense to indicate he thinks the situation is still valid or relevant.

He uses the example “He said that Betty is a very clever girl.” This shift “from a past to a present domain,” Declerck says, “is optional, since the speaker could also have chosen to keep the domain constant,” as in “He said that Betty was a very clever girl.”

As you can see, the choice here isn’t always clear.

It’s safe to say that when we speak of the immediate or recent past, we’re more likely to use the present tense in the lesser clause (“He learned that he has cancer”).

But when a shift to the present would be jarring, we stick to the past tense even when the situation is still true (“She knew Wednesday was his poker night”).

We can think of further examples in which the tense is optional but the choice of one over the other makes a difference, as in this sentence:

“He said on the Today show that gluten is becoming a national obsession.” (The use of “is” stresses that the situation is still unfolding.)

And in the next two sentences, the differing tenses indicate differing views of an event:

“Did you know that what you were doing is wrong?” (The speaker is stressing that it’s still wrong.)

“Did you know that what you were doing was wrong?” (The speaker is emphasizing what the person knew at the time.)

Finally, we’ll end this post with an example in which the secondary verb is clearly better in the present tense.

We were just thinking that it’s time to sign off.

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