Here is the sentence I'm confused about:

If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders.

(Hal Abelson, MIT Professor)

My difficulty is to understand the verb were. I know we can't use are because that is not the truth. However, why were?

  • 3
    It's not subjunctive, it's past tense. We can't use are because we're talking about the past. Jan 30, 2014 at 13:27
  • Think simple. It's just the past tense as Peter Shor points out.
    – Kris
    Jan 30, 2014 at 13:28

2 Answers 2


Your verb is stand. The auxiliary verb is to be. The present tense of your verb phrase is: "are standing".

Were standing is called the past progressive tense. It is describing an on-going activity in the past that ended before the present moment.

It is also a play on a famous sentence written by Isaac Newton, who credited the work of others before him, as one who discovers by building on previous discoveries:

"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

The first person to have actually written these words was Bernard of Chartres in 1159. It was probably inspired by Greek mythology, where the blind giant Orion carried his smaller servant Cedalion on his shoulders to provide himself with 'vision'.

  • Thank you. So the quote is just a sentence that describes something happened before, right? Jan 30, 2014 at 23:45
  • @AppalachianMath - yes, it already happened. Jan 31, 2014 at 1:08

In addition to Peter Shor, here are examples.

Tut SASCO members were on strike.

Past-tense statement.

Tut SASCO members are on strike.

Present-tense statement.

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