Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Sequence of Tenses

Sequence of Tenses
Armey said Johnson sold 3 ounces of cocaine Thursday evening to two undercover police officers.
Armey said Johnson had sold 3 ounces of cocaine Thursday evening to two undercover police officers.

The following is from Towards a Working Grammar for Journalists

In straight news writing, use the past tense for attribution.
The moment a word is spoken, it exists in the past. Present tense sounds stylish but requires skill in order to use it properly. Once you start in present tense, be consistent. Do not switch tenses:

  • The state is in serious trouble, Mr. Smith says.
  • Speaking to a public meeting last night, Mr. Smith said the ingredients were . . . 

  • The state is in serious trouble, Mr Smith said.
  • Speaking to a public meeting last night, Mr Smith said . . .

In reported speech, the verb said is the governing verb and, therefore, controls the tenses of any subordinate verbs.

In reported speech, when the verb said is in the past tense, the primary tenses of subordinate verbs must be changed to secondary tenses. Accordingly, present is changed to past, perfect to past perfect, future to conditional, and future perfect to conditional perfect. This is called following
the sequence of tenses. Thus:

  • He said he was old but energetic.
  • She said she had aged but she had not lost her energy.
  • He said he would go but he would be late.
  • She said she would have lost her patience by then.
  • He said he thought the war was immoral.

Some newspapers do not use the sequence of tenses, although it is grammatically correct. They take the position that, while attribution normally will be in the past tense, verbs within the attributed statement may well be in present tense. They would argue, for example, that someone’s
opinion, expressed to a reporter on a given day, continues to exist:

  • She said she thinks the war is immoral.

Documents, which continue to exist after a reporter reads them, should be cited in present tense, and, when possible, the use of the imprecise said should be avoided:

  • Court records show that Smith had been arrested twice before on assault charges.

The timeless phrase according to also may be used when writing about records.

  • According to the accident report, Smith was driving along Main Road when his car’s brakes failed.

Here is a good explanation of tense sequence:
Here is a quiz on Sequence of Tenses

This is a nice explanation and shows how some publications are more conservative about this than others from “After Deadline” – a regular column on NYT style questions http://topics.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/after-deadline/

Sequence of Tenses
Several readers were puzzled last week by my criticism of the grammar in this sentence:
On Wednesday, the city of Copenhagen said that Mr. Eliasson will create a bridge there, called Cirkelbroen …

I said it should be “would create,” and indeed, that fix was made for print editions. But some commenters disagreed, thinking that “would” is only appropriate to convey a conditional sense or to indicate uncertainty.

The Times’s style, unlike that of some news organizations, is to adhere to the formal rules on tense sequences. So, for example, a verb that is present tense in a direct quotation shifts to past tense in an indirect quotation after a past-tense verb: I am going to the store becomes He said he was going to the store, not He said he is going to the store.

In such constructions, the future-tense “will” becomes “would” after a past-tense verb. In these cases, “would” is not acting as a conditional (He would go to the store if he needed something) but simply as the past-tense form of “will.”

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