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Here's the example that triggered me to ask this question

Sony Corp. said Thursday it wants to become the biggest player in Japan's growing Android tablet market by changing the way the devices are used.

If we take a look at the use of tense in the above sentence, we can see the past tense was used for the main sentence, "Sony Corp. said Thursday." I am happy with that.

But when it comes to its objective clause (hopefully that's the right term here), the tense somehow is not consistent with the main sentence, indicating the present tense by using the verb wants. Is it grammatically correct or not? I'd appreciate if someone can explain it to me.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Actually, both of these statements are grammatically correct:

Sony said that it wants to become...

Sony said that it wanted to become...

Furthermore, they mean nearly the same thing, with only a minor difference between them.

The first example indicates that Sony's desire is ongoing: it wanted to become the leading Android maker at the time that the quote was given, and furthermore it still wants to do so. By using the present tense, the writer indicates that the statement was true when given and that it remains true at the time the article is written.

The second example makes the much more modest claim that Sony wanted to become the leading Android manufacturer at the time the quote was given. In this case, we can presume that Sony's desire hasn't changed, but in other contexts the difference between past and present tense could be significant.

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This is also know as the Historical Present. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present –  Mark T Sep 1 '11 at 19:15
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The clause using the present tense ("it wants") represents something that is currently true, and describes Sony's current state (wanting to ....). The verb "said" is in the past tense because it is a simple action that happened at one point in time, which in this case is the past.

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Sony still wants even now because the goal of becoming a big player has not yet been achieved. It's an unfulfilled goal, thus present tense.

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Actually, this question is more subtle than it appears. Yes, either form can be used, and yes, they have slightly different meanings. But if you put it into direct speech, a problem appears. In the first case, Sony wanted to become the biggest, and the company (or that overworked flack A. Spokesman) said, on Thursday, "We want to become the biggest player in Japan." In the second case, it still wants to be the biggest, and A.Spokesman said - what? "We want to be the biggest player in Japan, and we will still want it next week"? Presumably not, but unless he used that or similar phrasing, you can't legitimately put words into his mouth with "he said".

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