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Sequence of tenses

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Sequence of tenses

Sequence of tenses (known in Latin as consecutio temporum, and also known as agreement of tenses, succession of tenses and tense harmony) is a set of grammatical rules of a particular language, governing the agreement between the tenses of verbs in related clauses or sentences.

A typical context in which rules of sequence of tenses apply is that of indirect speech. If, at some past time, someone spoke a sentence in a particular tense (say the present tense), and that act of speaking is now being reported, the tense used in the clause that corresponds to the words spoken may or may not be the same as the tense that was used by the original speaker. In some languages the tense tends to be "shifted back", so that what was originally spoken in the present tense is reported using the past tense (since what was in the present at the time of the original sentence is in the past relative to the time of reporting). English is one of the languages in which this often occurs. For example, if someone said "I need a drink", this may be reported in the form "She said she needed a drink", with the tense of the verb need changed from present to past.

The "shifting back" of tense as described in the previous paragraph may be called backshifting or an attracted sequence of tenses. In languages and contexts where such a shift does not occur, there may be said by contrast to be a natural sequence.


  • English 1
  • Russian 2
  • Latin 3
  • Greek 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6


In English, an attracted sequence of tenses (backshifting) is often used in indirect speech and similar contexts. The attracted sequence can be summarized as follows: If the main verb of a sentence is in the past tense, then other verbs must also express a past viewpoint, except when a general truth is being expressed.[1]

For example, if Batman spoke the following words:

I need a special key for the Batmobile.

the speech act may be reported using the following words:

Batman said that he needed a special key for the Batmobile.

with the present tense need replaced by the past tense needed, since the main verb of saying (said) is in the past tense. Further examples can be found at Uses of English verb forms: Indirect speech.

In some cases, though, a natural sequence of tenses is more appropriate. Here the tense of a verb in a subordinate clause is not determined by the tense of the verb in the superordinate clause, but is determined simply according to the sense of the clause taken apart from the rest of the sentence.[2] The rule for writers following the natural sequence of tenses can be expressed as follows: imagine yourself at the point in time denoted by the main verb, and use the tense for the subordinate verb that you would have used at that time.[3] Thus the tense used in the indirect speech remains the same as it was in the words as originally spoken. This is normal when the main verb is in the present or future tense (as opposed to past tense or conditional mood). For example:

Batman says that he needs a special key for the Batmobile. (main verb in present tense)
Batman has said that he needs a special key for the Batmobile. (main verb in present perfect, not past tense, so no backshifting)

However it is also possible to use the natural sequence even if the main verb is past or conditional:

Batman said that he needs a special key for the Batmobile.

This option is more likely to be used when the circumstance being expressed remains equally true now as it did when the speech act took place, and especially if the person reporting the words agrees that they are true or valid.

Debate amongst grammarians over the appropriateness of the two types of sequence of tenses goes back as far as the 18th century.[2] Use of the attracted sequence sometimes leads to additional problems when the grammatical construction of indirect speech includes an incorporated quotation – that is, when an attempt is made (though using indirect rather than direct speech) to report the words actually spoken. For example, if a minister spoke the words "Such a policy is not without its drawbacks", then a writer may attempt to report this as follows:[1]

The minister admitted that "such a policy is not without its drawbacks".

using quotation marks to denote that that portion of the sentence represents the minister's actual words. This, however, requires use of the natural sequence of tenses, which might not be felt appropriate in the given situation. There are various possible solutions to this problem:[1]

  • Rearrange the sentence so that the incorporated quotations become set off, possibly as direct speech:
The minister did not claim perfection: "such a policy is not without its drawbacks", he admitted.
  • Cut down the incorporated quotation to exclude the verb:
The minister admitted that such a policy was "not without its drawbacks".
  • Use square brackets to indicate where the words deviate from those actually spoken:
The minister admitted that "such a policy [was] not without its drawbacks".

Similar problems arise from the other changes that typically occur in indirect speech, such as changes of pronoun (depending on speaker), etc.

For more details, see the article on indirect speech, and also the article on uses of English verb forms, particularly the sections on indirect speech and dependent clauses.


Indirect speech in Russian and other Slavic languages generally uses the natural sequence of tenses (there is no backshifting). For examples, see Indirect speech: Russian.


In Latin a primary tense (simple present tense, present perfect, simple future tense, or future perfect) in the superordinate clause is followed by primary tense in the subordinate clauses, and a historic "tense" in the superordinate clause (imperfect, perfect, or pluperfect) is followed by a historic tense in the subordinate clause. In Latin the "Consecutio temporum" (sequence of the tenses) is a gathering of rules that are followed in the subordination of Latin clauses. The Consecutio Temporum is used with the indicative, subjunctive and infinitive moods. The infinitive mood is used in dependent noun clauses, in which the subject is expressed in accusative and the verb at the infinitive mood. The tense is present infinitive if the action in the clause is contemporary to the action of the independent main clause; it is perfect infinitive if the dependent verb is anterior to the verb of the independent; it is future infinitive if it happens after the action of the independent is over. Some types of dependent clauses have the verb in the indicative mood. If the independent's action is contemporary to the dependent's, here the tense will be the same as in the independent. If the relation of tenses is of posteriority you will use the future participle plus the present simple of sum (active periphrastic) in the dependent. If the relation is of anteriority it changes: if the verb in the independent is a present indicative tense, the verb in the dependent clause will be in a perfect tense. If the independent's verb is an imperfect tense, the dependent's will be a pluperfect, if the dependent's is future simple, the dependent's will be future perfect. The Consecutio Temporum of the subjunctive mood is much more difficult, and also the most used in the dependent clauses, but we can remember the whole following of Latin tenses in these tables:

Contemporaniety Present amare
Anteriority Perfect amavisse
Posteriority Future amaturum,-a,-um esse/amaturos,-as,-a esse
Present (amo) Perfect (amavi)
Imperfect (amabam) Pluperfect (amaveram)
Future simple (amabo) Future Perfect (amavero)
Type of Tense Contemporaniety Anteriority Posteriority
Primary Present Subj. (amem) Perfect Subj. (amaverim) Future Participle+ Present Subj. of "sum" (amaturus sim)
Historical Imperfect Subj. (amarem) Pluperfect Subj. (amavissem) Future Participle+ Imperfect Subj. of "sum"(amaturus essem)



In Classical Greek, the tenses in subordinate clauses must correspond to those in the superordinate clauses governing them.[5]

A principal tense (present tense, future tense, or perfect tense) in the superordinate clause is followed by a principal tense in the indicative mood or subjunctive mood. Such a principal tense is followed by:[5]

  • the present tense when the action of the subordinate verb refers to the same time as the superordinate verb
  • the perfect when the action of the subordinate verb has been completed before the time of the superordinate verb
  • the future tense when the action of the subordinate verb is in the future of the time of the superordinate verb

A historical tense (imperfect, pluperfect, or aorist) in the superordinate clause is followed by a historical tense in the indicative mood or optative mood. Such a historic tense is followed by:[5]

  • the imperfect when the action of the subordinate verb refers to the same time as the superordinate verb
  • the pluperfect when the action of the subordinate verb has been completed before the time of the superordinate verb
  • the aorist
  • the future tense in the optative mood when the action of the subordinate verb is in the future of the time of the superordinate verb

In fact, since Greek tenses express the aspect of the verb, not the time, we don't have the "Consecutio Temporum", but the "Consecutio Modorum", the sequence of the Moods.


  1. ^ a b c Don LePan (2003). The Broadview Book of Common Errors in English: A Guide to Righting Wrongs. Broadview Press. pp. 30–31.  
  2. ^ a b Merriam-Webster (1994). "sequence of tenses". Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam-Webster. p. 838.  
  3. ^ Joseph Devlin (1910). How To Speak And Write Correctly. New York: Plain Label Books. pp. 141–142.  
  4. ^ Benjamin Hall Kennedy (1942). "The Complex Sentence". In J.F.Mountford. The Revised Latin Primer. London, New York, Toronto: Longmans, Green, & Co. pp. 174–175. 
  5. ^ a b c Raphael Kühner (1844). "Succession of Tenses". Grammar of the Greek Language, for the Use of High Schools and Colleges. translated by Samuel Harvey Taylor and Bela Bates Edwards. New York: Mark H. Newman. pp. 505–506. 

Further reading

  • Walter Kay Smart (1925). "Tenses". English Review Grammar. New York: F.S. Crofts & co. p. 185ff. 
  • Rodger A. Farley (September 1965). "Sequence of Tenses: A Useful Principle?". Hispania (Hispania, Vol. 48, No. 3) 48 (3): 549–553.  
  • Robin Lakoff (December 1970). "Tense and Its Relation to Participants". Language (Language, Vol. 46, No. 4) 46 (4): 838–849.  
  • Paul Kiparsky (2002). "Event Structure and the Perfect" (PDF). In David I. Beaver, Luis D. Casillas Martínez, Brady Z. Clark, and Stefan Kaufmann. The Construction of Meaning (PDF). CSLI Publications. 
  • David DeCamp (February 1967). "Sequence of Tenses, or Was James Thurber the First Transformational Grammarian?". College Composition and Communication (College Composition and Communication, Vol. 18, No. 1) 18 (1): 7–13.  
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