We all know that universal statements are always in present tense. For example,

My grandma did not believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Here, though the sentence is in past tense, Earth revolves around the Sun remains in simple present tense.

But in case of a false belief that is contrary to a universal truth, does the above rule apply similarly? For example,

My grandma believed that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

Will this sentence be taken as grammatically correct? Shouldn't it be "My grandma believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth"?

  • "Universal statements are always in present tense" -- not always. – Kris Apr 12 '13 at 7:07
  • Can anyone explain me in what cases the universal truths can/ cannot be in present tense? Or, is it that I can choose whichever (present/ past) I like (since the above sentences happened to be correct grammatically)? I am totally confused. – Deepan Das Apr 14 '13 at 19:15
  • Note that you are turning the rule on its head, kind of: The present tense is used to express a general truth (universal truth), facts (need not be true), and in a few other similar instances. It is not the other way. – Kris Apr 15 '13 at 5:24

Yes, your sentence is grammatically correct:

My grandma believed that the sun revolves around the earth.

But I disagree that "universal truths are always in present tense". On the contrary, it is perfectly fine to say:

My grandma did not believe that the earth revolved around the sun.

preserving the proper coordination of tenses.

  • Would you please explain why the above sentences are correct. – Deepan Das Apr 11 '13 at 16:53
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    I'm not happy with the use of the term 'universal statement' in connection with this example. At rogercostello.wordpress.com/category/universal-statements is the usage I'm familiar with in this context: Universal statements: These are statements that tell you something about an entire category. Here’s an example of a universal statement: All dogs are loyal. Can you show evidence of My grandma did not believe that the earth revolves around the sun. or similar being termed a 'universal statement'? – Edwin Ashworth Apr 11 '13 at 18:04
  • Sorry. I meant to say 'universal truth'. – Deepan Das Apr 11 '13 at 18:42
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    In English, the normal use for the present tense with active predicates is as a Generic. However, that does not mean that "all universal truths are expressed in the present tense." That's exactly backwards. – John Lawler Apr 11 '13 at 19:53
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    @John Lawler: Some fascinating investigations in your papers. Thank you. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 13 '13 at 22:18

The default position for a reported clause is for the present tense to become the past tense. Where the emphasis is on the circumstances in the reported clause continuing, the present tense may sometimes be found. However, even if the circumstances are unchanged, the past tense may still be used. It would be quite in order to write both ‘My grandma did not believe that the earth revolved around the sun’ and ‘My grandma believed that the sun revolved around the earth’.

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    I tried hard to "unpack" your answer, piece by piece, but I simply did not find enough explanatory material to enable me to understand. Perhaps a couple examples would have helped. Perhaps by breaking down sentence number two into three or four sentences, your answer would have been clearer. Perhaps defining "reported clause" immediately after using it would have made things clearer. While I am not the questioner, I still want an answer that makes things "click" for me. (By the way, there's no down vote from me, just an observation.) – rhetorician Apr 11 '13 at 17:58
  • Your two examples are in fact the same: I think revolved in the first should be revolves, but I'm not sure. (I also agree that more examples would help in a 'teaching' answer like this. And as a final nitpick, 'either..or' would be more in order than 'both...and' :) ) – Tim Lymington Apr 11 '13 at 21:13
  • @TimLymington. They're meant to be the same. – Barrie England Apr 12 '13 at 6:09

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