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Your help would be very much appreciated with the following sentence:

"When I first visited Berkeley in spring 2015, I knew immediately that when I attempt an MBA, the school is going to be at the top of my list".

The main clause here being in Past Simple (I knew), it would be logical to expect the subordinate clause to be in the past as well "the school was going to be". If we eliminate extra time clauses, everything looks good: "[...] I knew immediately [...] the school was going to be at the top of my list".

However, I am confused by the "when I attempt an MBA part".

The latter obviously indicates the action in the future expressed through present tense - quite a widespread usage, I'd say (as in "When I start driving, my dad will by me a car"). In our case, however, if this part of the sentence ("when I attempt an MBA") stays in present tense, in my opinion, it does not go well together with the rest of the subordinate clause being in the past, i.e. "...that when I attempt an MBA, the school was going to be". Sounds off.

Should I use future, instead, for the "when I attempt" part, and change it to conform with the sequence of tenses? This would make for something like "I knew that when I would attempt an MBA..." This tense, in turn, seems to go better with the rest of the subordinate clause being in the past, as SoT requires.

Many thanks in advance!

  • Change attempt to attempted and, for the rest, you've correctly answered your own question. It's similar to: She knew that when she attempted her driving test she was going to be nervous. – Ronald Sole Dec 26 '16 at 17:03
  • It feels to me that will sounds better than going to here, although I can't explain why. – Peter Shor Dec 26 '16 at 17:30
  • You could use the modal preterite "attempted" rather than "attempt". The "when" clause can be analysed as a fused relative construction meaning "on the occasion when I attempted an MBA". – BillJ Dec 26 '16 at 18:24
  • @RonaldSole I think what the writer is saying is that they realized in 2015 that on that occasion, currently still in the future, when they start applying to MBA programs Berkeley will be at the top of their list. – StoneyB Dec 26 '16 at 19:23
  • To my mind, either “...I knew the school was going to be...” or “I knew the school would be at the top of my list.” seems the way to go. “is going to be” and “will be” don’t work for me at all. – Jim Dec 27 '16 at 1:47
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The present-form attempt here is correct.

Will and would are not used to indicate futurity in restrictive adjunct clauses—that is, clauses which define the time at which the future eventuality in the head clause takes place. Instead, a present-tense form of the verb is employed in the adjunct clause; this is taken to lie within the 'future domain' (this useful term is Renaat Decerck's) established in the head clause.

An explicit future reference in a when clause (e.g. when I will attempt, when I am going to attempt) refer to eventualities subsequent to the eventuality in the head clause. Such clauses are usually 'supplements', not restrictive adjuncts:

You will arrive at 10:30, when a car will bring you to the conference = and a car will then bring you to the conference.

The past forms in the 'ultimate' head here, "I knew", is irrelevant; what governs the time reference in the when clause is its immediate head clause, the school is going to be .... And that future reference is semantically determined, not syntactically—what you "knew" at the past time was a fact, which still obtains in the present, about an eventuality which in the present still lies in the future.

  • I'd say that in your "at 10.30" example, "when" Is anaphoric and hence relative. – BillJ Dec 26 '16 at 17:39
  • @BillJ Fersher; I'd say so too; but it seems to me that this use is not characteristic of other sorts of relative clauses (e.g. The school which I am going to apply to ...). – StoneyB Dec 26 '16 at 17:39

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