Non Sequence of tenses

« previous post | next post »

(Part of) today's Non Sequitur:

I have the impression that this sort of thing ("He can now clearly see that there were going to be a lot more questions") happens a lot with the historical present, but I don't have any other examples at hand.


  1. Shimon Edelman said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

    I happen to be in Seoul this semester, 13 hours ahead of my family, which is on EDT. My wife tells me how she said to a friend the other day "Tomorrow, Shimon went to the gym." Indeed, it was still Saturday night back home, but already Sunday morning in Seoul. I guess special relativity and the international date line make a strange mix.

  2. larsbars said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 4:38 am

    I have no idea who's responsible, but the version of this cartoon published in yesterday's Detroit Free Press says 'was', not 'were'.

  3. Robert said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    I'd find both 'are going to be' and 'will be' grammatical, but not 'was' or 'were'. Since there's a parenthetical piece of dialogue between the two parts of teh main sentence, this looks likely to be a slip.

  4. Ellen said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 9:06 am

    For me, "are going to be" and "will be" would not work, because this is all in the past for the narrator. And "was" sounds wrong to me. Though it's also what's in newpaper here too.

  5. Peter Howard said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 9:37 am

    It took me a while to work out what the issue was, and "were going to be" still sounds ok to me (as do "are going to be" and "will be".)

    I wonder if it would have made any difference if the story had been set in A.D. 4920.

  6. Robert said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    If 'will be' is ruled out because it's in the narrator's past, surely 'we can now' should be ruled out on the same grounds, as should all other uses of the historic present. Presumably, there are some uses of that construction that you find acceptable. How are you drawing the line?

    While the action is in the narrator's past, it is also in the narration's present, the time which 'now' is referring to, so I feel the same tenses should be used as would be were the action being narrated by someone present at it.

  7. language hat said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    It took me a while to work out what the issue was, and "were going to be" still sounds ok to me

    Really? This sounds OK to you?

    He can now clearly see that there were going to be a lot more questions.

    Would you say "I can now clearly see that there were going to be a lot more questions" (meaning future questions)? If not, what's the difference?

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    If "I could see that there were going to be a lot more…" and if "I can see that there are going to be a lot more…," generally, then so could he, and so can he. Never mind that the writer is writing in the historical present; he could as well be writing as an immediate observer, and the frames would have to adjust accordingly. I think Mr Liberman is right that this is a grammar breakdown that is too, too easy to make (we shouldn't fault it, really). Changing was to were only changes the color of the lipstick on this pig :-).

  9. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    I neglected to highlight my answer: He can now clearly see that there are going to be a lot more questions.

  10. Peter Lehmann said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    I know I can use tenses correctly but upon waking up from a refreshing night's dream I realize that Mark – my linguistics teacher – was about to grade my latest work a clean F. Man, this is so jarring. It's almost like language users have access to a repertoire of special effects, exemptions from rules and such.

  11. Peter Howard said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    Yes, Hat, really. (I'm taking tablets for it.) The difference between the examples is that yours (which I wouldn't say) isn't in the historical present, while the original is.

  12. Peter Lehmann said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    Or, to be obvious about it: there is an objective irony inherent in the situation, and it's perfectly possible to establish a narrative convention such that tense usage becomes a reflection of this irony. "The historical present is nothing but an audacious application of the subjunctive". I guess I should really stop now. But, please believe me, I have got an alibi: I truly am Mr. L., not Herr K. trying to figure out a way through a linguistic maze to arrive at the inner sanctum of the castle of correctness.

  13. Craig Russell said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    My first impression was that this is an "across two panels" mistake; would the author have written it the same way if the sentence weren't interrupted in the middle? But the historical present explanation might work too.

    Interesting (?) sidenote: I'm a Latin teacher, and I've found that, when we're reading Latin, my students are often kind of skeptical about the historical present; they refuse to translate it that way, and they call it "stupid" when it is used for narration.

    (Historical Present narration is incredibly common in Latin literature, in Virgil's epic poetry, Livy's historical work, etc. And–to bring this back around and make it somewhat relevant to the original posting–in Latin when the main verbs are historical present, sequence of tenses in subordinate clauses often counts that historical present as a past tense, just as this author does.)

    So I always try to find examples to show my students how common Historical Present narration actually is in English. It's certainly common in spoken English: ("So I'm in the grocery store the other day, and I'm walking down the aisle, and all of a sudden the cans start falling off the shelves."), and there are some literary examples as well (John Updike). Maybe I'll add this comic strip to my collection.

  14. Peter Lehmann said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    "in Latin when the main verbs are historical present, sequence of tenses in subordinate clauses often counts that historical present as a past tense, just as this author does."

    Yes. But I seem to remember that that usage can occur pretty much anywhere in a Latin text. I would insist that this comic employs irony. Its title is "Non-Sequitur". "Sequitur": that would refer to linear narrative sequentiality – which clearly isn't in evidence here. The last panel tells us that nothing "really" happened. So the line of text accompanying that final drawing actually is a counterfactual. The original idea was that no questions would be asked and that help would neither be available nor be asked for.
    This kind of thing isn't necessarily easy to construct. I certainly can't easily imagine a story ending with the line "See? You didn't call me Ishmael." But the "bound-to-the-dino"-image sorta works. Maybe our fantasyscape really suffers from an overabundance of those beasts. Anybody out there who thinks the usage here isn't context-dependent?

  15. Ellen said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

    Robert, it's grammar, not logic.

  16. Ellen said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    @ Language Hat: Context makes a difference. Out of context, "can now see clearly" marks a present time, and thus shifting to the past tense doesn't work. But reading it in context, we know that "can now see clearly" is narrating something in the past, not the present. It's not fair to take the sentence out of context and ask it if sound okay, because then it's in effect a different sentence.

  17. Robert said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 2:35 am

    Ellen, grammar is not completely random. There is some semblance of logic to it, but we need to be careful using it. Pure logic would dictate that the historic present not exist, since historic events are in the past, but language doesn't work that way. Similarly, any argument that past events must take a past tense, simply because they're in the past, is false logic.

    On the other hand, grammatical sentences are almost always consistent about their reference point – the location of here and now. Sentences like 'Yesterday, I am painting' jar, despite the existence of the historic present because of this. Abrupt changes in the reference point have to be signalled, and they don't occur within one sentence. Thus, in fictional narratives, while the narration's here and now need have nothing to do with the narrator's – it can as easily be in in 50 million AD as in 500 BC, or even in a different universe altogether – it should still be consistent at the sentence level, apart from the rare cases when the narrator gets teleported mid-sentence.

  18. joanne salton said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 5:41 am

    I would have thought that when we can take a break mid-sentence to observe a cartoon picture it represents a "normal constraints off" kind of situation.

  19. Bloix said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    "I would like to have been there."
    "I would have liked to be there."
    "I would have liked to have been there."

    Are any of these incorrect? Is there any difference in meaning between them?

  20. Craig Russell said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 3:26 pm


    While I would probably use any of the three more or less interchangeably in informal speech, if I were writing it or giving some thought to it, (assuming that my meaning is "I, today, feel remorse at the fact that I was not there at some point in the past") I would probably start by saying "I would like to have been there."

    But then something about it would seem wrong somehow, and I would look at it for a while, and then change it to, "I would have liked to be there." But then I'd think, "Wait, wouldn't that describe the regret I felt at the time, and not the regret I continue to feel now?" So I'd change it to, "I would have liked to have been there."

    But then the more I looked at that, the more it would seem totally wrong, like it should logically refer to regret I felt in the past about an event even further in the past. I would briefly consider changing 'would' to 'should', and then finally just change the sentence to "I wish I had been there" and move on.

  21. David Crosbie said,

    September 10, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

    In Britain the BBC Radio show 'In Our Time' is famous for the frequency with which academics describe past events in the Historic Present. Early this year I tried to analyse a programme on Jonathan Swift's 'Modest Proposal', in which Melvyn Bragg elicited comment from three literary specialists. All four speakers drifted between Past and Historic Present. At one point, Bragg actually tried to censor himself, but then reverted to Historic Present in the very next sentence.

    'He’s living in Dublin, as I understand. He WAS living in Dublin. Historic Present. Mustn’t do It. Does dominate this programme … to the outrage of some people. [BREATHES IN] He’s in Dublin.'

    A sequence of tense feature that cropped up several times was when a speaker introduced a background event in a Simple Present narrative. For example:

    'The chief proponent is … who died in the late 17th century … and he’s one of the founding members … in 1662. Before that in the 1600’s he had been a surveyor… He’s part of the Cromwellian land grab in which land was mapped…'

    'The idea is introduced by a knowing American who Swift, who the author had met in London.'

    'There are the rumours that feed into what he says, the rumours that the Irish poor had indulged in cannibalism. (These are rumours are all over the place, when people are in such dire straits.) That was, that fed into what he was writing

    For more than one speaker, the preferred sequence of tenses was:

    'X happens at a time that Y had happened'

  22. brotzel said,

    October 26, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    What about the UK soccer pundits' present historic? Eg (reviewing a play after the game): "So he drops into the box… no one picks him up… He's completely unmarked… Now the ball comes in…" etc etc

RSS feed for comments on this post