Style Quiz #10: Tense Shifts

By Mark Nichol

Pick the version that correctly reflects the state of the fact or proposition.

1.
a) It was common knowledge that things fall down when you drop them.
b) It was common knowledge that things fell down when you dropped them.

2.
a) He posited that the universe consisted of a space-time continuum.
b) He posited that the universe consists of a space-time continuum.

3.
a) She told me that the ACLU was a Communist organization.
b) She told me that the ACLU is a Communist organization.

4.
a) The instructors came up with this engaging lesson because they want to give younger students a base of understanding for future science projects.
b) The instructors came up with this engaging lesson because they wanted to give younger students a base of understanding for future science projects.

5.
a) He faced a steep learning curve in terms of just how serious fans are about the football program.
b) He faced a steep learning curve in terms of just how serious fans were about the football program.

Answers and Explanations

1.
a) It was common knowledge that things fall down when you drop them.

“Things fall down when you drop them” is a perpetual truth, so the verbs in the statement should be in the present tense regardless of the tense of the sentence’s initial verb.

2.
b) He posited that the universe consists of a space-time continuum.

If the proposition is true, the universe is still composed as stated.

3.
b) She told me that the ACLU is a Communist organization.

Depending on the context, was may be correct — the person who made the statement may have been referring to a previous state — but if she was referring to it in its present state, the present tense should be used to refer to that state regardless of the use of past tense to report the statement.

4.
a) The instructors came up with this engaging lesson because they want to give younger students a base of understanding for future science projects.

The goal of the instructors is presumably perpetual and has no relation to the verb used to explain what the instructors did. However, in a historical context describing what former instructors did, wanted is correct.

5.
a) He faced a steep learning curve in terms of just how serious fans are about the football program.

Assuming that passion of the fans has not diminished, they should be described as still being serious about the football program.

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6 Responses to “Style Quiz #10: Tense Shifts”

  • John ‘Grumps’ Hamshare

    Oops! Caught me out on a couple of those. Memo to self: Pay closer attention to context of verbs.
    Thanks for alerting me.

  • Dale A. Wood

    NO, this is incorrect!
    “b) She told me that the ACLU is a Communist organization.
    “Depending on the context, was may be correct — the person who made the statement may have been referring to a previous state — but if she was referring to it in its present state, the present tense should be used to refer to that state regardless of the use of past tense to report the statement.”

    The correct statement is in the Subjunctive Mood:
    “She told me that the ACLU was a Communist organization.”
    The Subjunctive Mood is used to make statements that are counter to known facts. In other words, they are “contrafactual”.
    The ACLU never has been a communist organization, and it is not one now.
    Contrafactual statements, stated in the Subjunctive Mood:
    A. “She told me that the Moon was made of green cheese.”
    B. “She told me that negative numbers were impossible.”
    C. “She tells me that her baby brother was brought by a stork.”
    D. “She tells me that Fidel Castro was a true benefactor and hero of the poor people of Cuba.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    This could also be an iffy or contrafactual statement in the Subjunctive Mood:
    “He posited that the universe consisted of a space-time continuum.”
    According to one’s set of beliefs, this may or may not be true.
    I. Maybe “he” never stated that, but rather someone else did it.
    2. Maybe “he” did assume that, but “we” (a certain set of unknowledgeable people) do not believe this.
    3. Maybe “he” did assume that, but there are now scholars who have information or beliefs to the contrary. Maybe they have religious beliefs that hold this to be a bunch of balderdash.

    4. This group has always believed that the World was flat, and they still do. Of course, they also believed that the Apollo missions to the Moon were a bunch of claptrap fabrication, and they still do.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Some scientists believed that the sound barrier could never be broken.
    Some scientists believed that the sound barrier would never be broken.
    “Can” is a verb in the present tense, and “could” is its past tense.
    Furthermore, “could” is the form of “can” in the Subjunctive Mood.
    “Will” is a verb in the present tense, and “would” is its past tense.
    Furthermore, “would” is the form of “will” in the Subjunctive Mood.
    There is endless confusion among writers and speaker about these facts.
    Some said that the World would come to an end on January 1, 2001.
    1. Maybe they made a contrafactual statement, and it never happened, and they were just stupid about it.
    2. Maybe they made that statement in the past (before the year 2001), and the World really did come to an end, but people never have come to a realization of this. Thus the statement, “the world would come to an end”, is doubly or triply contrafactual.
    People are only living in their dreams, or in some other space of existence. Nobody can know for sure.

  • venqax

    “The Subjunctive Mood is used to make statements that are counter to known facts. In other words, they are “contrafactual”.”
    Not exactly. Better, statements that are subjective or that could be counterfactual. Those that are not simply objectively factual but hypothetical in the broad sense.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Venqax: You’re crazy. This is absolutely true: “The Subjunctive Mood is used to make statements that are counter to known facts.” If it is used for something else in addition, that is another issue.
    Also, my BIG POINT is that the Subjunctive Mood was not even mentioned in the article, and apparently not even thought of, until I said something about it.
    The following sentence is OBVIOUSLY in the Subjunctive Mood: “She told me that the ACLU was a Communist organization.” Similar statements can be made about the John Birch Society, the Whigs, the Nazi Party, Italian & Spanish Fascism, the Know Nothing Party, the Catholic Church, and the Flat Earth Society.
    What these have in common is that none of them have anything to do with communism.
    By the way, my present spellchecker does not like either of “contrafactual” or “counterfactual”, so which one is it? Both or neither?

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