In the movie, Good Will Hunting, the main character, Will, says to his ex-girlfriend on the phone, "I just wanted to call you up before you left." and the past tense "left" sounded strange to me as his ex-girlfriend has NOT left yet when he says that.

Which of the followings is grammatically correct? 1. I just wanted to call you up before you left. 2. I just wanted to call you up before you leave.

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    Had the girlfriend already have left, then "...before you left" would be correct. If, however, she is still there then either "leave" or "left" would, to my native English ear, seem to work. – WS2 Jun 3 '17 at 13:32
  • Thank you for your answer. Would you say both "leave" and "left" are correct in written English as well if she is still there? – kengo Jun 3 '17 at 13:39
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    This is the so-called "counterfactual before", as in Get him out of here before he kills them; that sounds OK, but if you shift it to the past you get I got him out of there before he killed them, and that has the same problem, The past does sound strange for something that hasn't happened yet -- or maybe it has, and it's not clear. This is interesting, because the past tense for a verb-governed irrealis construction like I wish you were leaving now sounds just right to this native speaker. – John Lawler Jun 3 '17 at 14:11
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    I see no reason for it to be any different when in written form. – WS2 Jun 3 '17 at 16:16
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    @JohnLawler Thank you for your detailed explanation. I didn't know the concept of counterfactual before. It's quite interesting. Now I have a bit better understanding of tenses. Thank you. – kengo Jun 4 '17 at 0:27

English has a sequence of tenses rule, whereby the tense in an adverbial clause (in this case "before you left") is partly governed by the tense in the matrix clause (which in this case is the whole sentence, whose central verb is "wanted").

Specifically, when the matrix clause is in the past tense (e.g. did) and/or the perfect aspect (e.g. have done) and/or the conditional mood or irrealis mood (e.g. would do or did, respectively), then the adverbial clause will almost always be in the past tense (e.g. did); otherwise, it will almost always be in the present tense (e.g. do). Interestingly, this means that adverbial clauses are almost never in the future tense; for example, we say e.g. "I'll call you up after you leave" (or "I'll call you up after you've left", with the present perfect), not *"I'll call you up after you'll leave".

This is not always a 100% hard-and-fast rule, but it's really pretty close, and I don't think you'll ever go wrong following it. In the specific example you quote, though, I think "before you leave" would also have been OK.

The same rule is often followed with relative clauses ("I knew a woman who lived there", even if the woman still lives there), and to a lesser extent interrogative clauses ("I often wondered who lived there", ditto), but with both of those it's more flexible. That has the interesting effect that native speakers will sometimes follow a sequence-of-tenses rule for a relative clause and therefore use the past tense, but then awkwardly "correct" themselves with the present tense; so you'll hear things like, "I used to date a guy who worked there. I mean, he still works there, but we're not dating anymore."

  • Thank you for your elaborated explanation. I found it very helpful. I believe I have a good understanding of the sequence of tenses rule, but I see or hear a lot of examples that cannot be accounted for in terms of the rule; for example, "I heard you're taking some time off", which is another quote from the same movie. Another example would be "Mike just said he wants to go to the beach" assuming a situation where you just hung up the phone with Mike and tell another friend of yours what Mike just said. How would you explain these examples with the sequence of tenses rule? – kengo Jun 9 '17 at 15:35
  • By the way, as for relative clauses or interrogative clauses, I find it natural to use the past tense if the main clause is in the past tense. To take as an example the sentence "I knew a woman who lived there", it is talking about the fact at a point in the past, that is, the focus of the conversation is in the past ("I knew a woman who lived there at that time) and whether the woman currently *lives there or not is rather irrelevant or off the topic. So I have no difficulty to comprehend those past tenses. – kengo Jun 9 '17 at 15:36
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    @kengo: In "I heard you're taking some time off", the subordinate clause is a declarative content clause. Those follow the same pattern as interrogative content clauses; it's also fine to say "I heard you were taking some time off", even if the time off hasn't happened yet. – ruakh Jun 9 '17 at 18:57
  • Thank you for your reply. How about "I heard you are a teacher" vs. "I heard you were a teacher"? I figured that these should mean the same per the sequence of tenses rule (and that you should say "I heard you had been a teacher" if you are talking about you being a teacher in the past), and once asked a native English speaker if these two are the same or they differ in meaning. His answer was something like this - the former clearly suggests you are still a teacher but the latter sounds like you were a teacher in the past and not any longer. What is your take on this? – kengo Jun 10 '17 at 4:51
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    My take is that they can both mean roughly "You're a teacher, according to what I've heard", but only the latter can mean roughly "You used to be a teacher, according to what I heard at the time." Neither is really synonymous with "I heard you had been a teacher", which means roughly "You used to be a teacher, according to what I heard later." – ruakh Jun 10 '17 at 6:46

Since Will's girlfriend has not left yet, Will should say, "...before you leave." If she had already left, Will should say, "...before you left," but that would only make sense if he did not get around to calling before she left.

  • Thank you for your comment. It helped me get a better idea of tenses in English. – kengo Jun 9 '17 at 14:40

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