I get a bit confused when you can and can't combine the present and past tense. For example, look at the following sentence:

When the plane landed, I looked out the window because I wanted to see what Norway looks like.

Should it say, "Norway looks like" or "Norway looked like?" I ask because when I looked out the window, I didn't want to see what Norway looked like twenty years ago.

Any opinions?

  • 1
    My opinion is that "Norway looks like" sounds better. Grammatically, the component "what Norway looks like" should be independent of the rest. Maybe I am wrong here, but I feel this is more a matter of logic and style than of grammar. At the same time, saying "what the time is" would sound quite awkward when compared to "what the time was", so maybe it really ought to be past tense.
    – Michael
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 4:49
  • 1
    See this answer about time-shifting.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 12:06

2 Answers 2


We can reasonably talk about what "Norway looked like" at a particular point in time.

We can reasonably talk about what "Norway looks like" ignoring time. I for instance saw what Norway looked like one year ago. It is reasonable to suppose that this gives me a fair impression of what Norway looks like now, and will look like tomorrow.

As such, both sentences are valid but mean slightly different things, focusing either more on a particular or a general state. You should choose between them according to which focus you'd prefer to convey.

  • You took the words right out of my fingers.
    – Tim Ward
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 12:17

Were you hoping to see into the future, to see what Norway looks like 'now'? When the main verb is in the past, so are all the other verbs in the sentence.

  • 1
    That second sentence is simply untrue. There are many sentences that change tense correctly.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 12:05
  • My mistake: I meant clause, not sentence; but 'wanted' and 'looks' are in the same clause, so I stand by my 'into the future' answer. I agree that your interpretation is 'reasonable', but there is nuance between 'looks' and 'looked' that would not be reasonable if time travel were possible.
    – AmI
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 17:30
  • No there isn't. "Looks" is only unreasonable if its unreasonable to believe Norway may still bear some resemblance to how it looked at the time.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 17:33
  • I thought I had agreed with 'reasonable', but I think there IS nuance. Would you still use 'looks' if Norway HAD changed drastically (sank into the sea).
    – AmI
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 17:48
  • No. It would be a grammatically correct sentence, but its meaning would not be what I would want to convey. Since Norway hasn't sunk into the sea, it's both grammatical and perfectly reasonable.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 18:00

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