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.)