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Although the various shades of time and sequence are usually conveyed adequately in 

informal speech and writing, especially by native speakers and writers, they can create havoc in 
academic writing and they sometimes are troublesome among students for whom English is a 
second language. This difficulty is especially evident in complex sentences when there is a 
difference between the time expressed in an independent clause and the time expressed in a 
dependent clause. Another difficulty arises with the use of infinitives and 
participles, modals which also convey a sense of time. We hope the tables below 
will provide the order necessary to help writers sort out tense sequences.
As long as the main clause's verb is in neither the past nor the past perfect tense, the verb of 
the subordinate clause can be in any tense that conveys meaning accurately. When the main 
clause verb is in the past or past perfect, however, the verb in the subordinate clause must be in 
the past or past perfect. The exception to this rule is when the subordinate clause expresses what 
is commonly known as a general truth:
• In the 1950s, English teachers still believed that a background in Latin is essential for 
an understanding of English. 
• Columbus somehow knew that the world is round. 
• Slaveowners widely understood that literacy among oppressed people is a dangerous 
thing.
The tables below demonstrate the correct relationship of tenses between clauses where time 
is of the essence (i.e., within sentences used to convey ideas about actions or conditions that take 
place over time).
Click HERE for a table describing the various tenses of the active voice.
Click HERE for a table describing tense sequences of infinitives and participles.

Tense in
Purpose of Dependent Clause/
Independent Example(s)
Tense in Dependent Clause
Clause
To show same-time action, use the I am eager to go to the concert
present tense because I love the Wallflowers.
Simple To show earlier action, use past I know that I made the right choice.
Present tense
To show a period of time extending They believe that they have elected
from some point in the past to the
present, use the present perfect the right candidate.
tense.
To show action to come, use the The President says that he will veto
future tense. the bill.

To show another completed past I wanted to go home because I


action, use the past tense. missed my parents.

Simple To show an earlier action, use the She knew she had made the right
past perfect tense. choice.
Past
To state a general truth, use the The Deists believed that the
present tense. universe is like a giant clock.

Present
Perfect She has grown a foot since she
turned nine.
or For any purpose, use the past tense.
The crowd had turned nasty before
Past the sheriff returned.
Perfect

To show action happening at the I will be so happy if they fix my car


same time, use the present tense. today.
To show an earlier action, use the You will surely pass this exam if
past tense. you studied hard.
Future
To show future action earlier than The college will probably close its
the action of the independent doors next summer if enrollments
clause, use the present perfect tense. have not increased.

Most students will have taken sixty


Future For any purpose, use the present
credits by the time they graduate.
Most students will have taken sixty
Perfect tense or present perfect tense.
credits by the time they have
graduated.
Authority for this section: Quick Access: Reference for Writers by Lynn Quitman Troyka. Simon & Schuster: New
York. 1995. Used with permission. Examples and format our own.
Note:
Unless logic dictates otherwise, when discussing a work of literature, use the present tense: "Robert Frost describes
the action of snow on the birch trees." "This line suggests the burden of the ice." "The use of the present tense in
Carver's stories creates a sense of immediacy."

Sequence of Tenses
With Infinitives and Participles
Like verbs, infinitives and participles are capable of conveying the idea of action in time; 
therefore, it is important that we observe the appropriate tense sequence when using these 
modals.

INFINITIVES
Tense of
Role of Infinitive Example(s)
Infinitive
Coach Espinoza is eager to try out
her new drills. [The eagerness is
now; the trying out will happen
Present later.]
To show same-time action or action
Infinitive later than the verb She would have liked to see more
(to see) veterans returning. [The present
infinitive to see is in the same time
as the past would have liked.]

The fans would like to have seen


some improvement this year.
["Would like" describes a present
Perfect condition; "to have seen" describes
something prior to that time.]
Infinitive To show action earlier than the verb They consider the team to have
(to have been coached very well. [The
seen) perfect infinitive to have been
coached indicates a time prior to the
verb consider.]

PARTICIPLES
Tense of
Role of Participle Example(s)
Participle
Working on the fundamentals, the
Present team slowly began to improve. [The
To show action occurring at the
Participle same time as that of the verb
action expressed by began
happened in the past, at the same
(seeing) time the working happened.]

Prepared by last year's experience,


the coach knows not to expect too
Past much. [The action expressed by
knows is in the present; prepared
Participle expresses a time prior to that time.]
or To show action occurring earlier Having experimented with several
Present than that of the verb game plans, the coaching staff
Perfect devised a master strategy. [The
present perfect participle having
Participle experimented indicates a time prior
to the past tense verb, devised.]

Authority for this section: The Little, Brown Handbook by H. Ramsay Fowler and Jane E. Aaron, & Kay Limburg. 6th
ed. HarperCollins: New York. 1995. By permission of Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc. Format and
examples our own.
For help with tenses used in reporting speech (indirect quotations), we refer you to Mary Nell Sorensen's web-site at
the University of Washington.