Sequence of Tenses - A Complete Guide with Rules and Examples

Have you come across sentences with multiple verbs? Does every verb in the sentence have the same tense? Is there a particular sequence in which the tenses are to be used with multiple verbs in the sentence? This article will answer these questions and also any other question you might have based on the sequence of tenses. Go through the different rules to learn how they work and also check out the examples given to understand clearly. Furthermore, you can also try out the practice exercise given in the article to test your understanding of the same.

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Sequence of Tenses – What Does It Mean?

When translated literally, the sequence of tenses can be said to refer to a particular sequence in which multiple tenses will have to appear in a sentence. In other words, it can be said that in a sentence having two clauses, deciding the tense of the subordinate clause is solely dependent on the tense of the main clause.

According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, the term ‘sequence of tenses’ refers to “the rules according to which the tense of a subordinate clause depends on the tense of a main clause, so that, for example, ‘I think that you are wrong’ becomes ‘I thought that you were wrong’ in the past tense.” The Collins Dictionary defines the term as “the sequence according to which the tense of a subordinate verb in a sentence is determined by the tense of the principal verb, as in I believe he is lying, I believed he was lying, etc.”, and according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the sequence of tenses is “an arrangement of the tenses of successive verbs in a sentence designed to express a coherent relationship especially between main and subordinate parts”.

Rules Regarding Sequence of Tenses with Examples

Learning and understanding the rules to be followed when using multiple verbs in a sentence is the only way to comprehend how a particular sequence of tenses works. Looking at some examples and associating it with the rules is how you can master it. Given below are the rules to be followed when using multiple tenses. Go through them and apply them in sentences of your own.

Rule 1: Past Follows Past

If you have a verb conjugated in the past tense in the main clause or the principal clause, then make sure you conjugate the verb in the subordinate clause also in the past tense. This rule can be further broken down based on the form of past tense that appears in the principal clause.

Tense of the Principal Clause

Tense of the Subordinate Clause

Example

Simple Past

Simple Past

  • I thought you were at home.

Past Continuous

Simple Past

  • They were telling us that they loved our performance.

Past Perfect

Simple Past

  • My parents had left home before I arrived.

Simple Past

Past Perfect

  • The teacher wanted to know if the students had completed writing the answers.
  • When I reached the station, the train had already left.

Simple Past

Past Perfect Continuous

  • My brother was angry because he had been waiting for us for over an hour.

Exceptions to Rule 1

There are two exceptions to Rule 1. Check them out.

Exception 1 – Present Follows Past

In some cases such as one in which the subordinate clause is a general fact, a routine action or a universal truth, the tense has to be present even if the principal clause has a past tense form of the verb.

For example:

  • The teacher taught us today that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
  • Devi told me that she goes by bus everyday.

Exception 2 – Any Tense in the Subordinate Clause

When a comparison is being made using ‘than’, note that there is no particular rule as to which tense should be used. Take a look at the following examples.

  • I would go shopping with you rather than sitting at home all day doing nothing.
  • I will surely miss you more than I ever missed anyone else.

Rule 2: Any Tense after Present or Future Tense

If the principal clause has a verb in the present tense or the future tense, the verb in the subordinate clause can take any tense. The tense of the subordinate clause is decided based on the type of information that is being conveyed.

For example:

  • He says he saw Krishna.
  • My mom will definitely be happy if you come home.
  • She thinks that the food here is good.
  • Karthik will surely feel that we are hiding something from him.
  • They are feeling that it was not their fault.

Rule 3: Present Follows Future

When using subordinating conjunctions like ‘when’, ‘as soon as’, ‘after’, ‘immediately after’, ‘once’, etc. to form complex sentences and ‘if/unless’ to form conditional sentences, the subordinate clause will not take the future tense when the verb in the principal clause is in the future tense. It is conjugated using the present tense instead. Check out the following examples to understand.

  • I will teach you after I finish learning.
  • Aruna will help her mom with the household chores as soon as she completes her assignments.
  • If you do not work hard now, you will fail terribly.
  • I will let my dad know that you called when he is back home.
  • The team will be here immediately after they receive your signal.

Ruel 4: Use of Past Tense in Subordinate Clauses

When phrases like ‘as if’, ‘it is time / it is high time’, ‘what if’, ‘wish that’, etc. are used, make sure you use the past tense form of the verb.

For example:

  • I wish I knew you earlier.
  • She acted as if none of this affected her.
  • It is high time you consulted a doctor.
  • What if you had been given another chance?
  • It is time he realised what his habit of smoking was doing to him.

Rule 5: Use of Modal Verbs When the Conjunction ‘That’ Is Used

In case a subordinate clause is started off with the conjunction ‘that’ or ‘so that’, you will have to use the modal verb ‘may’ if the verb in the principal clause is in the present tense and ‘might’ if it is in the past tense.

For example:

  • We work hard so that we may prosper.
  • They worked hard so that they might not perish.

Check Your Understanding of Sequence of Tenses

Go through the following sentences and fill in the blanks with the right form of the verb given in brackets with reference to the sequence of tenses.

1. I wish you _______ here with me today. (to be)

2. We missed the train since we _______ home late. (leave)

3. Priya says that she _______ the guy properly. (see – negative)

4. I wish my brother _______ what he was sacrificing to get what he wanted. (understand)

5. They did not know why Pranav _______ that way. (behave)

6. He _______ to go home only after he finishes all that has been assigned to him. (allow)

7. My parents acted as if they _______ anything about the accident. (know – negative)

8. Unless you _______ what you feel (express), nobody _______ what is really going on with you. (know)

9. The teacher taught us that the Sun _______ in the East. (rise)

10. Her mom thinks that it _______ a good idea. (to be)

Now, check your answers and see how far you have understood how the sequence of tenses work.

1. I wish you were here with me today.

2. We missed the train since we left home late.

3. Priya says that she did not see the guy properly.

4. I wish my brother understood what he was sacrificing to get what he wanted.

5. They did not know why Pranav behaved that way.

6. He will be allowed to go home only after he finishes all that has been assigned to him.

7. My parents acted as if they did not know anything about the accident.

8. Unless you express what you feel, nobody will know what is really going on with you.

9. The teacher taught us that the Sun rises in the East.

10. Her mom thinks that it is a good idea.

Frequently Asked Questions on Sequence of Tenses

What do you mean by sequence of tenses?

When there is more than one clause in a sentence, the tense of the verb in the subordinate clause is completely dependent on the tense of the verb in the principal clause. The pattern in which the verbs behave and should be used is referred to as the sequence of tenses.

What is the definition of sequence of tenses?

According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, the term ‘sequence of tenses’ refers to “the rules according to which the tense of a subordinate clause depends on the tense of a main clause, so that, for example, ‘I think that you are wrong’ becomes ‘I thought that you were wrong’ in the past tense.” The Collins Dictionary defines the term as “the sequence according to which the tense of a subordinate verb in a sentence is determined by the tense of the principal verb, as in I believe he is lying, I believed he was lying, etc.”

What is the sequence of tense if the principal clause has a verb in the past tense?

A complex sentence in which the verb in the principal clause is in the past tense should have the verb in the subordinate clause also in the past tense. This rule does not apply only when the subordinate clause is a general truth or a daily habit, in which case, the subordinate clause will have a verb in the present tense.

Give some examples of sequence of tenses.

  • The teacher wanted to know if the students had completed writing the answers.
  • We work hard so that we may prosper.
  • Karthik will surely feel that we are hiding something from him.
  • She acted as if none of this affected her.
  • I would go shopping with you rather than sitting at home all day doing nothing.