A few weeks back, I was asked this tough grammar question by a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum: “Do noun clauses grammatically functioning as subjects in a sentence follow the sequence-of-tenses rule?”
Forum member Michael Galario presented these examples of such sentences: (1) “How media are reporting the news is being scrutinized by the public.” (2) “What I had for breakfast gave me heartburn.” (3) “What she did remains a mystery.”
The term “sequence of tenses” refers to the relation between the tenses of verbs when there’s more than one verb in the sentence, and there are actually several sequence-of-tenses rules in English depending on the kind and structure of the sentence.
If it’s a simple sentence where all the verbs denote actions or states that are happening at the same time, their tenses would be the same, as in “She nodded, winked, and smiled at me.”However, when the sentence is compound, complex, or compound-complex, the actions or states might have different time frames, so its verbs could take different tenses whose sequence depends on their time and logical relationship, as in “Edison is reputed to have made a thousand and one tries before he perfected the electric bulb.”
Recall that there’s also the so-called normal sequence-of-tenses rule for indirect or reported speech, which is a way of expressing the content of statements, questions, and other utterances without quoting them explicitly as is done in direct speech. For instance, a woman by the name of Nancy might have uttered this verbatim remark in your presence yesterday: “I hate you for your bigotry.”
When you recount what Nancy said to a friend today, it normally takes the form of reported speech: “Nancy told me yesterday that she hated me for my bigotry.” What happens is that when the past tense “told” is used for the reporting verb “tell,” the verb of the utterance itself takes one tense backwards into the past tense, from “hate” to “hated.”There’s also the narrative option to use the present-tense “tells” for that reporting verb, in which case the verb in the utterance itself takes the present tense:“Nancy tells me that she hates me for my bigotry.”
Now let’s go back to Sentence 1 in Michael’s sentences with noun clauses as subjects: “How media are reporting the news is being scrutinized by the public.” This is a complex sentence with the noun clause “how media are reporting the news” as subject (dependent clause) and “[subject]is being scrutinized by the public”(independent clause).
We can see here that since the verb form “are reporting”is alocked-in part of the noun clause “how media are reporting the news,”the verb phrase “is being scrutinized”in the independent clause is actually the only operative verb in the sentence. As such, no specific sequence of tenses or conditionality is neededfor this complex construction. Indeed, its logic will remain intact even if its tenses and conditionality are changed as follows:
“How media are reporting the news is being scrutinized by the public.”
“How media are reporting the news will be scrutinized by the public.”
“How media are reporting the news can be scrutinized by the public.”
“How media are reporting the news would be scrutinized by the public.”
“How media are reporting the news should be scrutinized by the public.”
But matters radically change when any of the constructions above is made into reported speech.By using a reporting verb like, say, “argued,” the normal sequence-of-tenses rule will now apply: “The Mass Media Council argued that how media were reporting the news should be scrutinized by the public.”
Without a reporting verb, however, the sequence-of-tenses rule in sentences with a noun clause as subject doesn’t come into play at all.
Next week: Sequence of tenses in relative clauses
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