I found a perfect example on the internet about what I am trying to ask. Take a look at this:

  1. "Mr. Dilger wants to see you." Mr. Bruce went on to say. "It's about the same thing. I thought I'd tell you before you saw him. A little bit easier facing the Big Boss if you're wised up beforehand, you know." I thanked him and went down the long aisle of desks to Mr. Dilger's office, the directory manager.

and this:

  1. “I thought I'd tell you before you get to the office tomorrow."

Do you see the difference? The first quote and the second quote are both talking about the present time, yet the first quote has the verb "see" in past tense, while the second one has "get" in present tense. They both seem to be okay, but how?

The first quote is obviously taking place before the main character "sees" Mr. Dilger. So why would it be in past tense?

Does the English language not specify which tense that we must use when sentences are constructed like this?

I'd love everybody's opinions.

  • Good question, +1. But I'm not qualified to answer. I'm sure someone else will, soon. Jun 16, 2015 at 8:38
  • Who is to give rules to a writer how he has to tell his story.
    – rogermue
    Jun 16, 2015 at 19:48

2 Answers 2


I sympathize with the heartfelt cry, "Does the English language not specify which tense that we must use when sentences are constructed like this?" The answer is sort of. "The English language" is really the speakers of the English language, and they don't always agree with each other, and they're not always consistent, especially in informal communication like the spoken dialog that you're reporting.

The first case you cite is, I think, the result of reported speech (or in this case, thinking.) If Mr. Bruce were reporting his thoughts directly, he would have told the narrator: I thought, "I will tell you when I see you." But Mr. Bruce tells the narrator a report of this thinking: I though I'd [I would] tell you when I saw you." This is called "backshifting the tense" for a past report ("thought"), and it takes "will" to "would," and "see" to "saw."

The second case has almost the same structure, but with a slight syntactic ambiguity about the reported thought. Is it of

    "I will tell you."

or is it of

    "I will tell you before you get to the office."

In the latter case, "get" should be backshifted to got. In the former, the temporal clause is not part of the report, and the verb "get" is in the present, which is used for near-future events.

Of course, that future sense clashes with the past "I thought," but getting the tenses technically correct would require something like, "Before you get to work, I will have thought that I had told you," and no one would say that.

There also is some sense of obligation in the sentence, not only that the speaker would warn the narrator but that he should. In which case, the sentence "I thought I should tell you before you get to work" is fine with the present tense indicating an ongoing situation.

Remember that it's dialog, and people don't always speak "correctly." Perhaps the author deliberately tried to mimic everyday speech, or perhaps he got it "wrong" in the first place.

  • +1, for your answer is close! :) Note: 1) usually backshift is optional when it is available; and 2) when backshift is available, that once the speaker decides to not use it somewhere in a clause, then the backshift is no longer available to the speaker to use in the following subordinate clauses. Related info in H&P CGEL, pg 156, [25]: i. "I am leaving before he returns" is the original utterance; ii. "She said she was leaving before he returned"; iii. "She said she was leaving before he returns"; iv. "She said she is leaving before he returns".
    – F.E.
    Jun 16, 2015 at 19:45
  • Thanks! (I'm sorry, I'm too old to use emoticons, so pretend I inserted an appropriate one.) Note 1) Thanks for clarifying the optional nature of backshift. I didn't mean to imply is was required in the first example. However shifting and unshifting mean different things. In the sentence "John said, 'I am tired.'" you transpose to reported speech with "John said that he was tired" (backshift) or "John said that he is tired." (none) The latter implies that poor John is still exhausted. We don't know with the former. If John said, "I am leaving now," I don't see how you can't backshift.
    – deadrat
    Jun 16, 2015 at 20:13
  • Note 2) Yes, you said it more clearly than I did (or could). And that's what makes the second example not quite right (and what makes the OP despair).
    – deadrat
    Jun 16, 2015 at 20:17

The first quote does not just have "see" in the past tense; it has "see" in the subjunctive mood. From Wikipedia:

Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred

In the first quote, the narrator has not yet seen Mr. Dilger, and the narrator might or might not have seen Mr. Dilger before Mr. Bruce had a chance to speak to the narrator. This uncertainty is indicated by the subjunctive mood.

In the second quote, while "getting to the office tomorrow" hasn't happened, it is virtually certain to happen in the normal course of affairs.

In English, the present subjunctive is used very rarely, though somewhat less so in the US than in the UK, or at least England. For example, an American would be likely to say "it is important that drivers be able to see the road" while in England it seems to be more common to say "it is important that drivers are able to see the road."

The past subjunctive generally has the same form as the past indicative, which is one reason the use of the subjunctive is fading. We see the past subjunctive, for example, in the phrase "if I were," used to express a contrafactual: "if I were king, you would be queen."

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