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I know the past tense carries the past tense in every dependent clause, but referring specifically to places or to things that are eternal, like the Earth, seems a bit weird and therefore we sometimes (I believe incorrectly) say

He didn't know that New Jersey was actually in the East Coast.

Because it still is. Or

He thought the Earth was round.

So is it square now?

Logically speaking, would you consider the use of past tense here a bit confusing in day-to-day speech in these examples? Would you instinctively opt for using the present tense?

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Here are two posts on the topic of backshift: english.stackexchange.com/a/149167/57102 , english.stackexchange.com/a/150743/57102 , which might be helpful. – F.E. May 18 '14 at 21:49
up vote 13 down vote accepted

Both tenses are OK, but I believe the past tense is a bit more common: it may be somewhat contrary to logic, but it sounds better. Harmony of tenses (if that's what it's called) is a linguistic phenomenon that is not always very logical.

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Harmony, agreement, sequence, succession, you name it. – RegDwigнt Jan 5 '11 at 9:32
It's largely the invention of schoolteachers. And the fact that there are no good predictive rules to share, as well as the frequent occurrence of clueless questions like this (and the more recent one that links to this question) is evidence that there is no "sequence of tenses" rule in English. Otherwise one could do better than wave one's hands about it's "not always being logical". – John Lawler Apr 19 '14 at 19:18
@Cerberus: There is no "external rule" to appeal to. Tenses are determined by the speaker. – John Lawler Apr 20 '14 at 2:45
@JohnLawler: The external rule is that, under relevant circumstances, one normally does not use a past tense to describe something that is also about the present. The violation of this rule is what makes it somewhat surprising to everyone. – Cerberus Apr 20 '14 at 2:51
And where is this rule inscribed? It sounds like a Gricean implicature to me, and those are subject to well-known constraints. – John Lawler Apr 20 '14 at 2:53

The clauses that New Jersey was actually in the East Coast and the Earth was round are known in functional grammar as 'projected clauses'. They behave in the same way as clauses that contain what is known in traditional grammar as 'reported speech'. As the authors of the ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ explain:

Simple past tense has a special use in reported speech or thought. The original speech or thoughts may have been in present tense, but past tense is usually used for the reports . . . Notice that the circumstances may still be continuing even though past tense is used (My emphasis).

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As a technical matter, he cannot have thought in the past that the Earth is round in the present (because that was in his future); he must have thought that it was round at the time. If you really wanted to refer to his belief then in the Earth's roundness now, the construction would be he thought it would be round, but this is rare in any sensible context. Luckily, the Earth still is round, so you can say either he thinks it is round, he thinks it was round or he thought it was round without offending logic, although the second would draw puzzled glances.

Not one in a hundred English speakers have analysed this, but in my circles the past tense is instinctively used; perhaps because it is in fact correct.

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Did you mean, "although the first would draw puzzled... ("he thinks it was round") because the second, he thought it was round is in the OP's question and I wouldn't be puzzled by that statement. – Mari-Lou A Jul 27 '13 at 7:23
@Mari-Lou; The second example in that sentence is he thinks it was round which, though logically valid and almost certainly true, is peculiar phrasing. – TimLymington Jul 27 '13 at 12:29
Oh, I didn't see the first one, it's a bit lost in the field in MHO. – Mari-Lou A Jul 27 '13 at 12:43
Actually, "he thought it was going to be round" sounds a lot better to me. – Peter Shor Apr 29 '15 at 2:23

A thought about the logic here that has a valid grammatical implication. What something was in the past tells you nothing about what it is today. For example, if I tell you I saw my daughter yesterday, and I was very happy to see her, there is no implication at all that were she to stop by today that I'd be unhappy to see her.

So, when you say "He didn't know that New Jersey was actually in the East Coast" there is no implication in the sentence as to the location of New Jersey today. it tells you neither that it is on the east coast, nor if it has switched places with California.

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After "I wish" follows past tense to express an irreal wish, ie a wish that can't come true. In written language: I wish father were** here. In colloquial language this were** is replaced by was*: I wish father was* here.

were** = genuine Past subjunctive Was* = Past indicative as substitute for subjunctive.

After I thought + clause we have something similar. - We thought you were the type for the job. A Past indicative in the clause makes no sense.Only as a Past with subjunctive function the sentence makes sense.

A lot of good examples would be necessary to show this in a convincing manner.

Here's a link to BNC with 50 examples for "I thought I was ...". I think there are examples among these that show that "I was" can't be understood as a normal Past indicative.


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