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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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3 Answers

up vote 8 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
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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
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