In the sentence, "All I had, and all I have now, were clues", should the verb be "were" or "are", or should the sentence be rephrased so that I don't have to choose between matching the verb to the past tense indicated by the first part of the sentence or the present tense indicated by the part between the commas?


There two clauses here, All I had were clues and All I have now [are] clues, and the attempt to bring them together in a single sentence creates a problem of agreement. Many readers might pass over it without noticing the inconsistency of the tenses, and if you think that may be true of your readers, then you might want to leave it as it is. If you don’t think that, you have to rewrite it, as, for example Clues were all I had, and clues are all that I have now.

  • I'm still trying to think of a reason to discount Susan's comma-set-off parenthesis reading. Certainly "All I had (and all I have now) was clues" works (I'm regarding 'all' as 'a totality of items under consideration'). "John, and for that matter Jane, is a great artist." The subject is John. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 23 '14 at 10:34
  • The John and Jane example is different. The concern there is only one of number, not of tense. Whether or not you put and all I have now between commas or brackets, it still needs a verb, and that verb has to be in the present tense. – Barrie England Jan 23 '14 at 10:49
  • Yes: the issue is whether parentheticals make any demands on the grammar of the matrix sentence. (And, I suppose, who decides when a parenthetical-candidate is a parenthetical.) It's probably better not to try one here. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 23 '14 at 10:58
  • The answer may be that sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. – Barrie England Jan 23 '14 at 10:59
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    When you're famous (100k), I'll quote you then. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 23 '14 at 11:19

I'd consider the version "All (that) I had, and all (that) I have now, were clues" to be fine for my AmE ear.

It would be similar in meaning to "Clues were all (that) I had, and all (that) I have now"; except that in the original version, the expression "and all I have now" would be treated as a supplementation.

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