The sequence of tenses for sentences with relative clauses

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Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

Last week, I replied to 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?” I argued that they don’t, explaining that the sequence-of-tenses rule doesn’t come into play at allin such complex sentences where the dependent clause functions as the subject of the sentence.

Forum member Michael Galario presented this even tougher questionafter that one: “What about sentences with relative clauses? Do they obey the sequence-of-tenses rule in English?”

He presented three such sentences, among them this provocative one: “The girl who is singing the song right now had an affair with the CEO.” He observed parentheticallythat the singing happens at the moment of speaking; the affair was in the past and may no longer be true at the present time.

To be able to answer Michael’s second question, we need a quick review of the relative clauses in English.
Recall now that relative clauses are clauses introduced by the relative pronouns “who,” “that,” “which,”“whose,”“where,” and “when,”with such clauses most often defining, describing, or identifying the noun that precedes them.A relative clause, of course,functions as the subordinate clause of a complex sentence.


As a general rule in English, complex sentences with any type of subordinate clause—including the relative clause but with the exception of the object clause (more about this later)—are not governed by any specific sequence-of-tenses rule like the one for reported or indirect speech. The sequence of tenses for the verb in the main clause and for that of the subordinate clause depends solely on logic and sense as well as the general rules for tense usage.

Going back to the complex sentence presented by Michael, “who is singing the song right now” is the relative clause—a dependent or subordinate one—that’s functioning as the subject of the sentence, while “the girl…had an affair with the CEO” is the independent or main clause. That such a sentence isn’t bound by any special sequence-of-tenses rule can be seen from the fact that the tense of the verb of the relative clause can take any logical tense or conditionality and still convey the meaning correctly with the verb in the main clause.

Thus, that complex sentence can take any of these tenses or modal changes in the relative clause and still function properly: “The girl who (is, has been, will be, might be, should be ) singing the song right now had an affair with the CEO.” This is in contrast with what happens when the original sentence, “The girl who is singing the song right now had an affair with the CEO,” takes the form of reported speech and needs to follow the normal sequence-of-tenses rule: “The office gossip said that the girl who was singing the song that time had an affair with the CEO.”

Along the way, I noted that complex sentences with an object subordinate clause are exceptions to the general rule that such sentencesaren’t governed by any specific sequence-of-tenses rule. Recall that an object subordinate clause grammatically becomes the direct object of such telling or reporting verbs as
“say,”“think,”“tell,”“ask,” “believe,” and “announce” when that subordinate clause is linked to the main clause by the conjunction “that,”as in the following sentence: “She says that I don’t love her anymore.”

This time the normal sequence-of-tenses rulegenerally gets to work. Main clause in the present tense: “She says that I don’t love her anymore.” Main clause in the future tense: “She will say that I don’t love her anymore.” Main clause in the past tense: “She said that I didn’t love her anymore.”

Indeed, the presence of the reporting verb in such sentences makes all the difference.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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