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"I have never thought he was a thief"

"I have never thought he is a thief."

Why do we use past tense "was a thief" instead of present "is a thief"?

[Edit - We would expect tense matching between 'have' and 'is'-- both are present tense. Yet the idiom is to use 'was' -- chasly]

Thank you!

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  • This is a more subtle question than it first appears. I'm not sure, and I hope someone will be able to give a convincing answer. Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 14:09
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    But is “have thought” really the present? A:“Why do you think/say/believe that he is a thief?” B:”Hold on there, I have NEVER thought/said/believed that he’s/he was a thief!” In fact, I think either “is” or “was” sounds/works fine here and that the question should rather be “Why does the present “is” seem to work here even though “have never thought” is a compound past construction?” cc: @chaslyfromUK
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 15:12
  • Perhaps the confusion exists because OP is interpreting (1) “I have never thought that he was a thief” to mean (2) “I WOULD have never thought that he was a thief.” To me, (1) clearly means the speaker has never and does not now think that X is a thief, while (2) [would most often] mean that the speaker, in spite of never having thought it possible in the past, now thinks that X IS in fact a thief. If OP is (incorrectly, imo) interpreting (1) to mean (2), then I think he/she is asking why use “was a thief” when the speaker actually now thinks that X “is a thief.”
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 15:46
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    @Papa Poule What can be the implications of these patterns: 1. "I have never thought that he would have become a thief”. 2. “I had never thought that he would have become a thief”. 3 “I never thought that he would have become a thief”. Thank you in advance.
    – Eugene
    Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 20:35
  • @Eugene lmo, Pat1 would require adding would (I would have never thought ...) to make it clearly mean that the speaker (A) now thinks John Doe (B) is a thief. Without the would , B is expressing that s/he has never & still doesn't think that B would have become a thief. Pat2 with its use of had means, imo, that A now thinks that B has become a thief, but he can no longer think that B would have become a thief because that ship has sailed. Pat3 reminds me more of Pat1 than of Pat2 (ie: I never thought & still don't think B would have become a thief [under any circumstances]).
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 21:39

3 Answers 3

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The rules of backshift in reported speech are also observed after verbs such as to think, believe, fear, hope, be afraid, be sure (verbs of opinion, hope, fear).

In grammars this is mentioned only in passing.

The Oxford Guide to English Grammar by John Eastwood has just one meagre line: We can report thoughts as well as speech.

One example: In Harry Potter, Phoenix, Dumbledore warned that Voldemort would come back. But the Ministry of Magic thought Dumbledore was a nutter.

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I believe this is the subjunctive mood made famous in the song, "I wish I were a rich man."

A couple articles on the subjunctive mood here and here.

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  • I hope the person/people voting my answer down will be kind enough to provide an explanation. This will help me to improve and will be a benefit to the community. Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 15:15
  • Possible reasons for voting down. 1. Too terse. 2. The answer begins with "I believe" and is thus not definitive. 3. Linking to external articles 4. The answer is incorrect because the question is not an example of the subjunctive mood. Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 15:18
  • Found this comment on another site saying English doesn't have a subjunctive mood, despite my having been taught that in school. Until a better answer comes, I still think that the original question is an example of the subjunctive mood. ell.stackexchange.com/a/15255 Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 15:25
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    It's not an example of the subjunctive mood. You haven't given any evidence for this belief. One of the articles you link to explains the subjunctive mood in Spanish, which behaves quite differently from the subjunctive mood in English. The other doesn't have any examples of the subjunctive that look anything like "I never thought ..." And if it were the subjunctive mood, "I never thought he were a thief" would be grammatical – which it's not. Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 19:10
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The "present perfect tense" is neither present nor past. It is in-betweeen as explained in [Wikipedia].

The present perfect is a grammatical combination of the present tense and the perfect aspect, used to express a past event that has present consequences.

For example:

I have been to London once.

This sentence means "I was physically in London one time in my life, and it happened in the past, but the timing is not important. The important thing is I have an experience of visiting London once."

The timing could be from a couple of hours ago (even shorter) to couple of dacades ago (or even longer). Nobody knows unless the timing of the visit is specified with an adverb or adverbial phrases with the past tense structure:

I visited London 2 days ago for the first time in my life.

In your example, it is easier to understand if you change it from a negative statement to a positive one.

"I have thought he was a thief."

It means "I thought in the past (once or continuously) that he was a thief".

As the action of thinking occurred some time in the past, the tense in the subordinate clause should be matched with the past tense. If "his being a thief" is present, you could never think about his future state.

If you want to express "your past thinking that he would become a thief in the future", you can't use the present tense of the verb be. You have to use the past tense of an auxiliary verb "will":

I thought (have thought) he would be a thief.

In the negative statement, the same should be applied.

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