Sequence of Tenses

For an explanation of tense and a complete list of verb tenses see Verb Tense in Reference.

In a complex sentence, the tense of the finite verb in the subordinate (dependent) clause needs to relate properly to the tense of the verb in the main clause. If the verb in the main clause is in a past tense, the finite verb in the subordinate clause should be in a related past tense:

Fang rushed [simple past tense] out to buy Ms Beebs a Jaguar because he realized [simple past tense] that he had forgotten [past perfect tense] her birthday. [The past perfect had forgotten, indicates that the “forgetting” occurred earlier than the “realizing.”]

Miss Hiss has been claiming [present perfect tense] that the fleas refused [simple past tense] to shower before the performance. [The "refusing" began and ended in the past; the "claiming" began in the past and has continued up into the present.]

We have known [present perfect tense] true happiness, for we once sampled [simple past tense] Ms. Beebs’ speckled oat cakes. [Another example of the same sequence. The present perfect tense is used in the main clause because the "knowing" began in the past and continues into the present. The “knowing” has been the result of an action, the "sampling" that occurred at a single occasion in the past.]

When an ongoing situation or a scientific fact or “general truth” is expressed in the subordinate clause, use the present tense:

Miss Hiss has always believed [present perfect tense] that Fang is [simple present tense] an incarnation of a crazy serpent god. [Miss Hiss began believing in the past and has continued to believe in the present: her thought is ongoing in her mind.]

Here are some additional examples of correct sequencing:

We will know [simple future tense] true happiness if we have [simple present tense] a chance to hear Ms. Beebs play the oboe. [The future tense is used in the main clause for a “knowing” that hasn’t yet happened; the present tense is used in the "if" clause for something that may happen in the future.]

We experienced [simple past tense] true happiness after we heard [simple past tense] Ms. Beebs play “the Piranha Partita.” [The simple past tense in both clauses indicates that both actions began and ended in the past.]

We would have known [past perfect tense] true happiness, if we had only heard [past perfect tense] Ms. Beebs’ rendition of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Cobra.” [The past perfect tense is used with the modal auxiliary verb would in the main (result) clause. This indicates that happiness might have arrived in the past but didn’t because a necessary condition (hearing Ms. Beebs sing) had not previously been met.]

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