Answers to Questions About Tense #3

By Mark Nichol

Three questions from readers about mixing tenses, and my responses to their questions, follow.

1. When I read the following quote recently, I wondered whether it’s wrong for all the verbs to be in the past tense: “Smith said he believed that the company was trying to intimidate employees into not participating in the panel’s efforts.” What do you think?

Reporting is generally presented in the past tense, but to continue to form verbs in the past tense may misrepresent the facts. At the time that Smith spoke, he held a belief that he presumably will hold into perpetuity, so the present tense of believe is appropriate here.

However, whether the verb after company should be in present tense or past tense depends on whether the alleged intimidation is ongoing. That was not the case in this particular instance, but if that is not clear in the context of the complete article, the reporter should explicitly state whether the intimidation ended. The sentence should read, “Smith said he believes that the company was trying to intimidate employees into not participating in the panel’s efforts.”

2. Is the following sentence properly constructed?: “Launching nationwide on September 25, BankWorks is a new service offered by Banking Services, the same company that brought you BankTrack and BankData.” Somehow the variation in verb tenses (launching, is, brought) does not sit quite right with me, but I cannot say if it is wrong.

Mixing tenses in sentences is fine, as long as each verb form is consistent with the tense for that piece of information. The service will launch in the future, but it is offered in the present, and the services BankTrack and BankData were established in the past, so the sentence is correct.

3. What are your thoughts are regarding tense usage for reported speech? Consider the following sentences:

“John told me that he was married.”

“John told me that he is married.”

Which one should I use if I want to say that John was married at the time he said he was married and he is still married at the time of the reported speech?

Write, “John told me that he is married” if he had a spouse at the time that he spoke to you. Write, “John told me that he was married” if John is now single. (Mixing of tenses is correct if the context warrants it, but it goes against the grain, and we’re so used to seeing it wrong, especially in nonprofessional writing, that it may seem incorrect.)

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3 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Tense #3”

  • Gregory Bryce

    I disagree with your certainty in saying,
    «Write, “John told me that he is married” if he had a spouse at the time that he spoke to you. Write, “John told me that he was married” if John is now single.»

    To my native English ear, with no further context, “John told me that he was married” is perfectly normal in the first case.

    “I met John at the 30th-anniverary reunion of our high school graduating class. He told me that he was married.” That merely states that he was married at the time of the conversation. It says nothing about whether he is married or single now; it is quite likely that I have no idea because John and I have not kept in touch. And unless he emphasized the word “WAS,” John was making no suggestion that his being married was a thing of the past.
    I have had a similar debate with a New Yorker; perhaps the tenses you recommend are more commonly used in the U.S. than in Canada.

  • Agua Caliente

    Thank you, Gregory, for your common-sense, real-world example. I had to re-read #3, though, to understand that what we see written about John’s marital status and how we hear it might possibly be interpreted in different ways. By the way, I am by birth a New Yorker and currently married.

  • thebluebird11

    Meh, kind of a non-issue to me. I think that if there is any doubt about something, it can be clarified, or the sentence can be reformatted. I don’t see anything wrong with any of the tenses in the above examples, nor do I see anything particularly wrong in the proposed alternate constructions. I don’t really have the time or patience to dissect everything out here and now, starting with something like “John told me he had been married” or “John told me he has been married,” with or without a qualifier (“John told me he has been married since…”, meaning he is still married), and so forth. I think that native English speakers should be able to determine the different nuances of each construction, though of course it could be difficult for an ESL speaker.
    As far as what “bugs” me more, is when people say something like “If you would have told me you were coming I would have baked you a cake,” or worse, when they sub “would/could/should of” for “would/could/should have.” THEN I cringe!

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