« Crap, is it Monday already? | Main | AP Stylebook is asking for it »

No need for tension about tenses

Someone probably told you once about the sequence of tenses—how the tense of the verb in a main clause dictates the tense of the verb in a subordinate clause. This is of particular concern to journalists because they must write reported speech so frequently. So:

Past tense main verb/past tense subordinate verb: She said she knew who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder.

Present tense main verb/present tense subordinate verb: She says she knows who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder.

Past tense main verb/conditional subordinate verb: She said she would give her regards to Broadway.

Present tense main verb/future tense subordinate verb: She says she will give her regards to Broadway.

Present tense main verb/present perfect subordinate verb: He says he has had a hot time in the old town tonight.

Past tense main verb/past perfect subordinate verb: He said he had had a hot time in the old town that night.

On Twitter, @guardianstyle has recently been ringing some of these changes, but one instance demands a quibble:

Reported speech (1) - She said "I like chocolate" (present tense) becomes in reported speech "she said she LIKED chocolate"

The exception to past/past sequence is the statement that is continuing or perpetually true. Thus, she said she liked chocolate could be understood to mean that she liked chocolate as a child but lost her taste for it as an adult. She said she likes chocolate means that her taste for it continues into the present.

Also, don’t get your feet tangled in infinitives when you have past-tense verbs. Write she would have liked to waltz around again with Willie, not she would have liked to have waltzed around again with Willie.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:14 AM | | Comments (22)


Fair enough. Although in the case of someone who had lost her taste for chocolate, it would be clearer to write "the said she used to like chocolate" rather than "she said she liked chocolate".

Fair enough. Although in the case of someone who had lost her taste for chocolate, it would be clearer to write "the said she used to like chocolate" rather than "she said she liked chocolate".

Of course the person who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder was ... Mrs. Murphy. It all comes of using the same pot for both cooking and laundry.

Thank you, Mr. Cowan, for the revelatory comment, and also for not disparaging my tastes in popular music.

One quick quibble - "She said I like chocolate" means I like it, not she.

@David Marsh -- I think you just illustrated the difference between the preterite and imperfect (as far as Spanish goes, anyway). :-)

Ridger, it's a fair cop. I've revised accordingly.

The McIntyre likes 'popular' music? I am shocked and dismayed that he admits it.

"The exception to past/past sequence is the statement that is continuing or perpetually true."
Um, I think that should be an exception. If things are clearly in the present, they can be reported as such. "I couldn't quite hear, what did she say?" "She said she will give her regards to Broadway." The reporting in this case is not actually referring to the past but to the present, even though the reporting verb has to be in the past tense. It's the "What did she tell you (behind that door you have closed)?" that makes the classic tense relationship necessary.

Douglas Adams had something so say along these lines, that the main problem with time travel was not going to be that of becoming your own grandfather (which is something "any well adjusted family could deal with"), but grammar.

P the T, Prof. McI's definition of "popular music" might be different from yours or mine.

Speaking of tenses, parse this one: "Is you is, or is you ain't, my baby?"!

Great song allusion, P the T, but doesn't the answer depend on what your definition of "is" is?

Not a bit, Timothaeus. I don't let political antics influence my grammar. Also, I see this text as poetic license. And I know what "is" means. Also was and will (or shall). I'm trying to recall who asked that musical question, although I can well imagine Jimmy Durante pulling it off.

Not at all, Timothaeus. I know what "is" means, and also "was" and "will" or "shall." I don't allow political antics to dictate my grammar. I am trying to recall who originally asked the musical question, but I can well imagine Jimmy Durante putting that song over. (Ha cha cha cha!)

Culpae for the double entry. The bloody verification do-hickey accepted the first, while telling me I hadn't answered their arcane question correctly.

What about "she would like to have waltzed"?

Either of your sentences suggests that the liking is hypothetical, when it is probably the possibility of waltzing that is hypothetical.

(BTW, please point out to your Webpersons how insanely many sources of Javascript your readers must enable in order to comment here.)

P the T, I never doubted your grasp of the meaning of the word "is". My attempted rhetorical flourish apparently fell flat.

As for the song itself, Billy Austin and Louis Jordan wrote "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby". It was a hit for Jordan, reaching number one even though it was originally released as the B-side. I personally like Nat King Cole's version best.

This song, Jordan, Cole, and similar mid 20th c. songs, musicians and singers fall in the broad category of American popular music. The best of all American popular music singers is, of course, Bing Crosby, but he is followed closely by Doris Day, Nat King Cole and David Bowie. I brook no dissent from this ranking.

You have something against Mr Sinatra,Mr Darren, et alii? And Mr Bowie is not in my musical lexicon. Thank you for finding out who wrote "Is you is..."

I have nothing against Mr. Darren, et al. There are many fine singers in that class. Mr. Sinatra, though, is over-rated; ok at phrasing but wobbly on the staying on the right notes. Of the three Rat Pack singers, he comes in a distant third.

Mr Sinatra had a great ear and a strong sense of pitch.The later recordings merely reflect time and age, but the musicianship is still there. I don't know who you'd place at 1 and 2, but no one - ever - put over a song better. Had he had different training and coaching, he might have found a career in opera - he was a strong actor as well.

Uh, Tim, I don't think David Bowie can claim U.S. citizenship. But you were pulling our collective leg--right?

Good catch, Dahlink, you're right. Bowie is not in the category of American pop singers. As for otherwise pulling your legs, no; I did not mean to confine myself to one time period when classifiying popular music. Bing thought highly of Bowie as a popular singer, and so I count myself in good company in sharing that opinion.

Check out Bing and Bowie's Christmas duet on youtube sometime.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected