Being consistent with your tenses


Registered Senior Member
What are the rules for tense consistency?

I'm pretty sure that's a problem spot for me. Whenever I look at my papers it's with a critical eye for "wtf, am I consistent with my tenses? what the deuce?" I am posting this with the hope that others have the same problem as me. It's a risk; maybe I'm a dumbass. But often it's my interpretation that my teachers have said, "Be consistent!"

But often being consistent goes against your thesis, and the message you're trying to get along, I find.

"She did this."

but in my opinion, one should do this."

Admittedly, I just made that up. But I really do have problems with tenses. What are the rules, Fraggle? I mean, I'm not lazy and such. I'm going to look it up on Google and find out. But I suspect that many others have this problem and not just me.
For starters, you seem to be talking about mode, not tense, so you may be looking in the wrong sources.

The indicative mode: I eat fish, I ate fish, I will eat fish. In a subordinate clause, these do not need to maintain consistency with the main clause. Last month my mother told her friends that I am beautiful. The spy will identify himself by saying he attended Woodstock. Fraggle thinks that English grammar will be much simpler in a few more generations. In fact, you have to jump through all kinds of verbal hoops to express timing relationships with greater precision: In Fraggle's next speech he will say that English grammar used to be even more complicated. In Chinese there is no concept of tense and mode, so you do this with descriptive words: Tomorrow Fraggle say in Middle Ages English grammar be more complex.

Your example goes beyond the indicative mode and is a good illustration of why our grammar is, indeed, unnecessarily complex. It's correct as stated, but if you had changed the subject in the subordinate clause from the impersonal "one" to "she," so you were talking only about her rather preaching to all of us, you would have to say... she should have done this. The subordinate clause has to be in conditional mode, perfect tense.

Notice that my own sentence illustrates the same ridiculous issue. If you had changed is in the subjunctive mode, present perfect tense, and you would have is in the conditional mode, present tense.

I'm sure there are whole books on this subject. I can't do any justice to it in a post, except to say that it's too complicated to cover all possible combinations. I'm sure you only have trouble with it in specific situations, so next time it happens bring it here. You're better at this than you give yourself credit for and you got this one right, so there isn't much to say about it. :)