Sequence of Tenses

What Is Sequence of Tenses?

In a thorough writing, the tenses do not have to be the same, but they must agree with each other both logically and grammatically in a way that sequence of actions in the sentence is demonstrated chronologically to the reader.

The term sequence of tenses refers to the rules which ensure there is logical relationship in how we use verb tenses in related clauses or sentences, to enunciate that all actions—in the presentOpens in new window, pastOpens in new window or futureOpens in new window— are not simultaneous. In other words, sequence of tenses is the relationship of tenses in subordinate clauses to those in principal clauses.

Basic Rules for Sequence of Tenses

The basic rules guiding sequence of tenses revolves around principal and subordinate clauses. Because of this, we must first identify principal and subordinate clauses to determine correct verb sequence.

The clause with the most important verb is identified as the principal or main clause (He knows that she cooks), while the clause or clauses containing lesser verbs are identified as subordinate clauses (He knows that she cooks).

If the tense of the principal clause is in the present (he knows), the possibilities for the subordinate clause will be as follows:

Principal Clause (PC)Subordinate Clause (SC)Time of the PC
in relation to the SC
He knowsthat she cookssame time
that she cookedearlier
that she will cooklater

If the tense of the principal clause is in the past (he knew), the likely outcome for the subordinate clause will be as follows:

He knewthat she cookedsame time
that she had cookedearlier
that she would cooklater

If the tense of the principal clause is in the future (he will know), the likely outcome for the subordinate clause will be as follows:

He will knowif she cookssame time
if she has cookedearlier
if she will cooklater