The Sequence of Tenses

The sequence of tenses is the principle in which the verbs in the subordinate clauses follow the tense of the verb in the principal clause of a complex sentence.

If the verb in the principal clause is in the present or the future tense, the verb in the subordinate clause may be in any tense, present, past or future, according to the sense to be expressed.

For example: She says that she is busy. In a sentence where the subordinate clause denotes purpose, if the verb in the principal clause is present or future, the verb in the subordinate clause must be present.

A past tense in the principal clause is followed by a past tense in the subordinate clause.

For example: He saw that he had made a mistake. When the subordinate clause is introduced by ‘than’, even if there is a past tense in the principal clause, it may be followed by any tense required by the sense in the subordinate clause.

When the subordinate clause is an adverb clause expressing place, reason or comparison, even if there is a past tense in the principal clause, it may be followed by any tense required by the sense in the subordinate clause.

If the subordinate clause is an adjective clause, any tense required by the sense may be used.

If the principal clause is in the future tense, we do not use future tense in subordinating clauses beginning with when, until, before, after etc.

I will call you when the papers are ready. (NOT I will call you when the papers will be ready.) Expressions like “as if, if only, it is time and wish that” are usually followed by past tenses. For example: She behaves as if she knows everything.

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