Tense change: previous actions on something that's currently true

I'm describing a situation that happened in the past. To explain it, I want to use a description that is both true now and true when the situation happened.

Specifically, I want something like:

She touched me where my neck met my collarbone.

Since my neck is still attached to my collarbone (thankfully), I'm wondering if I shouldn't use the present tense here instead:

She touched me where my neck meets my collarbone.

Which is preferable, and why?

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– RegDwigнt Mar 16 '11 at 2:32

[I believe this question already exists somewhere else on this website, but I can't for the life of me find it.]

In short, though the present tense is also possible, the most natural choice would probably be the past tense:

She touched me where my neck met my collarbone.

The main clause happened in the past, while the subordinate clause is a timeless fact; that is, it was true in the past and it is true now. Which tense to use in the subordinate clause? General rules about the sequence of tenses shouldn't normally be involved, since it is a timeless fact.

The most logical choice would be to use the present simple, because that is the common choice for timeless facts in a main clause (cf. mice like cheese, the Earth revolves around the sun, Liechtenstein borders on Austria, etc.). If I said "Liechtenstein bordered on Austria", you might expect to hear that the borders were changed later.

However, this is where assimilation or attraction of tenses kicks in: if a certain tense is used in the main clause of a sentence, especially a past tense, most writers will have a natural inclination to use this tense throughout the sentence where possible, because it looks neater in some subconscious way. (Note that this doesn't apply so much to tenses other than the past.)

In this case, since the subordinate clause is true now and was also true in the past, the simple past tense is possible; I'd say that either tense would be all right, but the past tense looks a bit more natural, especially in speech, where this attraction usually has an even stronger infuence.

Fowler as edited by Burchfield agrees that this is a common phenomenon:

A certain assimilation normally takes place in many forms of sentence, by which the tense of their verbs is changed to the past when they are made into clauses dependent on another sentence whose verb is past, even though no notion of past time needs to be introduced into the clause.

He mentions that the past tense is normal, but the present tense is also used in this type of sentence, to a somewhat more vivid effect.

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I want to give this answer more than +1! – Colin Fine Mar 15 '11 at 17:59
Re: "I believe this question already exists but I can't find it", see my comment on the question itself. – RegDwigнt Mar 16 '11 at 2:34
@RegDwight: Ah, how do you find these things? I tried searching for 30 seconds, then I decided I didn't care enough. It was probably the question I answered myself that I had in mind. Searching for similar questions is boring and slow; it is usually easier and more fun to just answer it again... sigh – Cerberus Mar 16 '11 at 12:58

I can only answer according to my own style preference and rationale here, but I would use the past for prose, such as in, say, a novel:

She touched me where my neck met my collarbone.

I would use the present for direct personal speech, such as when discussing the fact with another person:

She touched me where my neck meets my collarbone.

My rationale is based on a combination of style and a "fact test", to term it loosely.

In the second example, when discussing the fact of being touched in direct speech, the present tense seems preferred because the neck meeting the collarbone is a true fact that is still clearly true in the present. (Conversely, to use the past tense "met my collarbone" in direct speech might imply that it is somehow no longer true in the present. "What, your neck no longer meets your collarbone?" This my subconscious response if the past tense is used instead here.)

However, the first example of past tense seems more appropriate for prose. In a "fact test" here, the relevant and verifiable facts of a past tense narrative are generally the things that happened in that moment. Is the character's/author's neck still connected to their collarbone in the present? It hardly matters to the story, and as a reader, I'd even prefer not to be told. (Even if a fact of that nature is likely to still be true in the present, it feels like a stylistically negative intrusion on the past tense to state any facts about the present--sort of like a jarring whip to the present that draws attention to the current state of the narrator, and therefore distracts from the flow of the past narrative. Subtle, perhaps, but it's how I'd feel reading or writing this myself.)

Summary: Each seems useful in different applications.

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Strunk and White, in The Elements of Style, encourage the following in rule 17 [1]:

If the summary is in the present tense, antecedent action should be expressed by the perfect; if in the past, by the past perfect.

Hence, the correct form, according to a slavish interpretation, would be either:

• She touched me where my neck had met my collarbone.
• She touches me where my neck has met my collarbone.

But I think your intuition on this is right. There is no compelling reason to construct parallel tenses here.  Simplification can get us out of this dead end:

She touched me where my scar is.

But not:

She touched me where my scar was.

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Thank you Martha! – Andre Stechert Mar 15 '11 at 11:43
Aiyah! -100 for referencing Strunk and White! :) – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Mar 15 '11 at 13:16
-1 for incorrectly interpreting this advice from Strunk and White. Your neck meeting your collarbone is not an action; it's a stative verb. If the sentence were "she found me where J. D. Salinger had met William Shawn, there might be some justification for using past perfect (although simple past would also be fine there). But unless your head has been reattached to your body, your neck meeting your collarbone is not an action in this sense. – Peter Shor Jun 8 '14 at 15:31

I think you've pretty much answered your own question, really. The present tense is preferred because it's a description of an indefinite or continuous event, rather than a single, specific, discrete occurrence. Consider what would happen if you were writing about something in the future:

She will touch me where my neck will meet my collarbone.

You're going to have a hard time enjoying that touch since apparently your neck and collarbone haven't gotten together yet. Also it kinda sounds like your body parts are going out for a date or something.

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Do you really think future tenses and past tenses behave similarly in this case? I'll grant that it looks ridiculous with will, but not so in the simple past. – Cerberus Mar 15 '11 at 13:45
If it's correct to match tenses, it should be correct regardless of which tense you use. – Hellion Mar 15 '11 at 14:17
And your reference for that claim, Hellion? Languages are as they are, not as tidy-minded people wish that they were. – Colin Fine Mar 15 '11 at 17:57
My reference is Cerberus' excellent answer, which I have also upvoted. The inclination may be less so for non-past tense constructions, but it's still there. Even so I would characterize his answer as "it's correct to use present for timeless facts, but allowed to match past with past if it sounds better that way." – Hellion Mar 15 '11 at 18:24