Sorry I've been pelting you with my linguistic questions lately, but since I'm trying to do my best to make my English perfect, I just have to keep bothering you :)

Today's question regards something, I believe I could most adequatly refer to as the sequence of tenses. Without further ado:

While it's clear to me that when I use two separate verbs in one sentence, within the boundaries of one tense, the correct phrase should look like this:

I will go there and look for him.

I have been there and seen some serious shit.

I had broken the law and gotten shot three times, before I understood my mistakes.

And so on, random gibberish; these all are still correct, right?

Though somehow I became hesitant about whether a little more complicated sentence that I formulated would still be correct:

They are believed to have been there but not done a thing.

Something sounds a bit off for me here, but I'm not sure how I could fix it. "But not do a thing" isn't the right answer, I suppose, as it would clearly violate the verb tense consistency. Or perhaps I'm just overreacting and it's all okay?

Also, I would be highly grateful if you could point out my mistakes in any of my posts, should some inconsistencies occur.

Edit: Thank you so far, yet my doubts haven't been resolved completely yet :) I get that my sentences are correct, but would the last one still be if I were to say "but not have done a thing"? And if so, which one would you prefer, and would the latter case affect somehow the overall meaning?

  • Please don't use "code" highlighting when you mean to set off a passage. Use "quote" highlighting instead, as I have edited your post to reflect.
    – Robusto
    Dec 31, 2014 at 14:41
  • "They are believed to have been there but not done a thing." is fine grammatically. Verbs do not have to agree in tense when the semantics do not relate. Try to see the meaning and the separation of the clauses. It's necessary to see the verb in terms of the clause, not the sentence. That's what I feel at least.
    – Kris
    Dec 31, 2014 at 14:48
  • 1
    They are believed to have not done a thing is grammatically valid, but idiomatically it would almost always be phrased slightly differently. For example They are believed to have done nothing, or They are not believed to have done anything. This remains the case if they're also believed to have been there. Dec 31, 2014 at 15:10
  • 1
    Grammatically, you've dropped two words because of parallelism: "They are believed to have been there but not (to have) done a thing." There's nothing wrong with it. Jan 1, 2015 at 11:07
  • @PeterShor: I'm not convinced parallelism explains it as I stated in my answer. Would you agree?
    – user21820
    Jan 4, 2015 at 12:32

1 Answer 1


They are believed to have been there but not done a thing.

This parses as:

They are believed { to have { { been there } but { not { done a thing } } } }

Here the two past participial phrases "been there" and "not done a thing" are joined by "but".

The fuller alternative is:

They are believed to have been there but not to have done a thing.

which parses as:

They are believed { { to have been there } but { not { to have done a thing } } }

Here it is the two infinitival phrases "to have been there" and "not to have done a thing" are joined by "but".

Both of these expressions above do mean exactly the same thing but grammatically have different structures.

It is not simply a case of dropped words due to parallelism because the following is incorrect:

[WRONG] They are believed to have been there but not have done a thing.

A native speaker will just say it sounds wrong and most cannot explain, but if we attempt to parse it is impossible because "have" is just a helper verb here and cannot function as the main verb in either clause, hence we cannot put "have been there" against "not have done a thing".

It is also not just because "believed to not have done a thing" sounds odd (it is in fact valid), since the following is also incorrect though "believed to have ignored everything" is certainly legitimate:

[WRONG] They are believed to have been there but have been innocent.

This instead parses as:

They { { are believed to have been there } but { have been innocent } }

which means a totally different thing.

  • I wonder then: what would be the correct way to write such sentences in other tenses? Like for example, would the following be correct? "I talked with him, but didn't manage to change his mind" Or should I put another "I" after the comma in order to make it more viable? And what about the future tense - "I will speak to him, but not try to convince him". Is it alright, or should I repeat the whole "but I will not try to..." structure?
    – Bebop B.
    Jan 4, 2015 at 18:26
  • @BebopB.: Your examples in your above comment are correct. In the first you have joined verb phrases "talked with him" and "did not manage to ...", so it is fine. In the second you have joined infinitives "speak to him" and "try to convince him", together under the helper verb "will". Neither of these have different tenses.
    – user21820
    Jan 5, 2015 at 2:35
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    @BebopB.: In fact, the tenses do not affect whether they can be joined together in this way: "I was tricked once but will not be tricked again." It is the meaning that decides whether or not it is legitimate. "I went into the room and will come out again." is wrong not because of the tenses but because the speaker seems to be outside the room talking about himself having gone in and as if he has not come out yet! Instead, "I came into this room and will go out again." is perfectly fine, since the meaning is logically consistent, with the speaker in the room currently.
    – user21820
    Jan 5, 2015 at 2:39

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