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I am having trouble with something very specific and I found both in usage but one has to be better than the other. Right?

  • He wanted to go back to Kazakhstan, so I suggested we go together.
  • He wanted to go back to Kazakhstan, so I suggested we went together.

Which uses the correct sequence of tenses?

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2  
The first is correct. At the time when you made the suggestion, neither of you had gone yet, so the suggested action was prospective, not past. –  Sven Yargs Feb 26 '13 at 22:22
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The second one makes my head hurt. –  Robusto Feb 27 '13 at 19:58

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The difference between the first and second sentences are that the first uses the mandative subjunctive go and the second uses the past indicative went. You can see this by considering the sentences:

He wanted to go back to Kazakhstan, so I suggested he go with me.  
He wanted to go back to Kazakhstan, so I suggested he went with me.
He wanted to go back to Kazakhstan, so I suggested he goes with me. 

To my American ears, the third sounds just as wrong as the second. But by Googling, you can see that some U.K. speakers are now dropping the subjunctive in sentences like this. I would say that in the U.S., both the second and third stentences are definitely ungrammatical.

See this website that discusses the phenomenon.

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2  
To my UK ears, #2 doesn't sound too bad. And at 55K hits, Google Books for suggested we went (against 86K for suggested we go suggest many others are even more tolerant. But at only 5 hits, suggested we watched tanks against watch (1510 hits), so it's obviously not a fully-established variant tense usage, just a peculiarity associated with one very common verb form. –  FumbleFingers Feb 28 '13 at 6:15

Definitely the first.

The second would imply that you had already gone to Kazakhstan previously, and were just now suggesting that fact.

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-1: There is more than one grammatical school of thought on this matter. –  Pitarou Feb 27 '13 at 3:32
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@Pitarou No, it means something completely different. He is correct. –  tchrist Feb 27 '13 at 3:43
    
This may be an American-British difference. In America, the subjunctive must be used for this sense of "suggest". The subjunctive has the form of a bare infinitive, so you can't say "I suggest that he goes to Kazakhstan" or "I suggest that we went to Kazakhstan"—it has to be "go". In the U.K., this use of the subjunctive is dying, so maybe "went" could be used here, although it sounds incredibly wrong to me. –  Peter Shor Feb 27 '13 at 19:02

[Updated]

The first sentence is generally considered correct.

A suggested B [verb in root form]....

Regarding that, here is an extract from a Wikipedia article about grammatical mood:

The subjunctive mood, sometimes called conjunctive mood, has several uses in dependent clauses. Examples include discussing imaginary or hypothetical events and situations, expressing opinions or emotions, or making polite requests.

A subjunctive mood exists in English, though it is used in English much less than in many other Indo-European languages. In English, this mood has, for some uses, become something of a linguistic fossil. An example of the subjunctive mood is "I suggest that Paul eat an apple". In this instance, Paul is not in fact eating an apple. The sentence merely presents the hypothetical (but unfulfilled) actions of Paul according to the speaker's suggestion."

You can read more about the subjunctive mood here.

Note: Though this is how the tense should be chosen, in some situation some people may prefer using past tense. Read more about it in Peter's answer.


This is the wrong way to analyze it. (Thanks, Peter, for pointing it out!)

There is debate over this among grammarians that goes back as far as the 18th century. To sum up, there are mainly two different views as to the rules governing the sequence of tenses in a sentence.

  • Natural sequence of tenses: The tense of a verb in a subordinate clause is not determined by the tense of the verb in the superordinate clause, but is determined simply according to the sense of the clause taken apart from the rest of the sentence. Just imagine yourself at the point in time denoted by the main verb, and use the tense for the subordinate verb that you would have used at that time.

In this sense the first sentence is correct. You had not yet gone to Kazakhstan when the suggestion was made.

  • Attracted sequence of tenses: The tense of a verb in a subordinate clause is determined by the tense of the verb in the superordinate clause. If the main verb of a sentence is in the past tense, then other verbs must also express a past viewpoint, except when a general truth is being expressed.

But in this sense the second sentence should be considered correct. And that is probably also why it is this view, and the problems that it causes, that has generated the most discussion amongst grammarians (according to Merriam-Webster).

I personally would prefer the natural sequence of tenses and go with the first sentence.

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I think the grammatical analysis here is wrong. In the U.S., this sentence needs the mandative subjunctive, and that is why you must use "go". In the U.K., this use of the subjunctive is dying out, so maybe "went" is acceptable. –  Peter Shor Feb 27 '13 at 19:05
    
@PeterShor It is great to see your answer. I now understand why the problem can't be analyzed in this way. +1, the link is very helpful. –  0a -archy Feb 27 '13 at 19:24
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Googling "I suggested he goes" and "I suggested he went", it seems that "went" is preferred among people who use the indicative in this construction. –  Peter Shor Feb 27 '13 at 19:32

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