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I got confused with the rule of the sequence of tenses. I found that when the action in the subordinate clause is a habitual action or general truth, we can use the present tense in the clause even if the time it the main clause is Past.

"I knew you are a kind man"

But what if I want to express an action that is still true, but is not a habit/truth, but a temporary process expressed with the Continuous Tense:

"I knew you are reading a book now"

Is it correct too?

Thanks.

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    In both the examples you give, as a native speaker, I would always use were. e.g. Someone does me a favour, and I say I knew you were a kind man. You told me you were reading War & Peace, yesterday and that it would probably take you a month to finish it. Nonetheless I call you the following day and say I knew you were reading War & Peace.... Though in greater likelihood I would say I know you are reading War & Peace...
    – WS2
    Mar 24 '15 at 13:58
  • I see, thanks for the reply. I still don't get it if it is correct to use the Present tense in such sentences. Here's another example: "I thought you are playing games now, but you are doing your homework instead." Does it break grammar rules, since the action in the subordinate clause is not habitual behaviour but a current process? Could you please clarify it? Thanks!) Mar 24 '15 at 14:51
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    This would be written: "I thought you were playing games, but you are doing your homework instead." Mind the removal of "now" in the past clause. One has to try to be tense-consistent at least for the clause. Mar 24 '15 at 15:07
  • @NikolayKomolov yes. I agree with Marius.
    – WS2
    Mar 24 '15 at 20:40
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Questions about "sequence of tenses" often come up, here, because, for one thing, English appears to be changing in this regard. It makes it especially difficult to deal with, since native speakers do not necessarily agree about what is grammatical English. Being a rather old person, I speak a conservative version of English which generally requires sequence of tenses to be followed. For your example, "I knew you are a kind man", I would have to say, instead, "I knew you were a kind man". Personally, I allow present tenses embedded in the complements of past tense verbs only in the case of truisms in indirect discourse: "Henrietta emphasized that the earth still revolves about the Sun."

I have a theory about recent, more liberal dialects, and that is this: Apparent sequence of tense violations are permissible when the main verb can be interpreted as a parenthetical expression which somehow qualifies the assertion made by the complement sentence. Specifically, for your first example, I think "I knew you are a kind man" is okay, in recent English, because it is interpreted to mean "You are a kind man, as I knew." That is, the assertion made is "You are a kind man", and the "I knew" part is just a qualifier -- a sort of adverb.

So then, for your second example,

I knew you are reading a book now"

my prediction for neo-English, is that this will be grammatical if and to the extent that it can be interpreted to mean "You are reading a book now, as I knew." It's a task for the imagination to figure out the situation in which you would say such a thing, but if you can do that, your example sentence should sound okay.

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"I knew you must be watching."

is used by two great writers here.

Generally, in English, it's the past that's highly preferred to go with the past tense. See in published books listed at Google Books:

"I knew you were"

About 3,970,000 results

"I knew you are"

About 136 results

As to one of your sentences, showing in one comment, that should be:

"I thought you were playing games, but you are doing your homework instead."

if you really feel the need to switch verbal context.

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  • Thanks. As I know from the rules, modal verbs are not necessarily changed if the main clause is in the Past :) Mar 24 '15 at 14:54

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