Does tense change when the narrator (present) writes about what a person (past) could have said about their time?

For example

A person who lived during 1790 could truthfully claim that Washington is the president of the United States of America.

Should the is be was? If so, or if not, what's the relevant rule?

  • 2
    Actually, he wasn't. Washington didn't become president until after the constitution was adopted in 1789. And if there were quotes around it, the present tense would be grammatical (if inaccurate): ... could have said "Washington is the president .... But unless it's a direct quote, you use the past tense to talk about the past. Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 0:25
  • @JohnLawler Well, now I know. (For what it's worth, I'm not American.) I've edited the question accordingly.
    – Hal
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 2:09

2 Answers 2


First an historical correction. Washington wasn't president in 1777. So let's change your sentence to use the year 1790, one year after he had assumed the presidency.

Although your sentence is written in the present tense ("could claim"), your "that" clause is basically reported speech. So for that reason alone, you would write "was."

A person who lived during 1790 could truthfully claim that Washington was the president of the United States of America.


Point of view is a literary concept, so the tense would primarily depend on how much your narrator knows. In addition, character's speech, aloud or internal, would most naturally defer to the present.

the claim "Washington is the president" is an embedded noun clause, the only conjugation that you need to worry about is the main clause, since within the subordinate clause the different verb tenses don't create an unintelligible sentence. "Washington was/is/will be president" does not effect "a person who lived could claim" which is the main clause.

"could" is an auxiliary verb modifying the verb "claim" and wouldn't cause the conjugation of the verb in the embedded noun phrase.

Another issue, is the inclusion of "that" which is, perhaps, the biggest problem. "that" can be a number of parts of speech which then change the meaning of the phrase, in your particular example "that" is causing most of the ambiguity. Why mess around with a noun clauses if you don't have to?

example: "As i've been narrating this story from the beginning, and you've seen that i've gotten a few things wrong, you wouldn't be surprised that someone from this story would say he could truthfully claim that, "washington is the president" but still be untrue.

or with the exclusion of "that"

A person who lived in 1777 could claim Washington is president.

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