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Which sentence is grammatically correct, and why?

  1. He wrote a didactic novel that set out to expose social injustice.

  2. He wrote a didactic novel that sets out to expose social injustice.

2 Answers 2

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Since the main verb of the sentence, "wrote", is past tense, then the English sequence of tenses rule requires the tense of any subordinate clauses to be shifted to the past, unless any subordinate clauses should be interpreted to mean something that would be appropriately expressed as a non-subordinate clause.

In your example, if "He wrote a didactic novel that sets out to expose social injustice" should be interpreted as meaning

He wrote a didactic novel. It sets out to expose social injustice.

then the present unshifted tense for "sets out" is appropriate, because in the intended interpretation, the "sets out" clause is not subordinate to "wrote", so its present tense would not be shifted to past. This is the case if it is your opinion (you being the speaker or writer of this sentence) that his novel actually does set out to expose social injustice.

However, if you don't want to imply that the novel does really set out to do this, you could remain neutral on this point by using a shifted past tense in the relative clause, allowing for the possibility that the writer was insincere in his purported goal of exposing injustice. Then, with the shifted tense, you're not taking responsibility for the truth of "it sets out to expose social injustice".

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  • Right, and I'd add that using the past "set out" allows the possibility that the novel did achieve that goal in the past but not anymore.
    – user21820
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 4:15
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The first one is correct because, like "wrote", "set" is in the past tense.

it sets = present tense

it set = past tense

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