Do you normally backshift a verb in the that-clause of 'make sure' when the 'make' is 'made,' 'could make,' 'would make,' etc.?

Please take a look at the examples below. Are my thoughts on the right track?

A man is asking his travel agent to get seats next to each other's for him and his wife on a plane.
[1] If you could please make sure we (sat/ sit) together, I'd appreciate it. My thought: Either is fine. You could backshift 'sit,' but you don't have to.

A man asked his travel agent to arrange consecutive seats on a plane for him and his wife, and they did.

[2] They made sure we (sat/ sit) together. My thought: If sitting has not yet happened, you can say either, but if it did, you only can say 'sat.'

[3] They made sure we (would/ will) sit together.
My thought: If sitting has not yet happened, you can say either, but if it did, you only can say 'would.'

  • 1
    If I'm not mistaken, doesn't backshifting only apply to reported speech? (He said that X...)
    – user10893
    Aug 30, 2011 at 9:59

2 Answers 2


Personally, what sounds best to my ear is to make the verb past tense when using "made sure", and present tense in the other circumstances:

They made sure that we sat together.

Please make sure that we sit together.

They will make sure that we sit together.

  • Also "They made sure (in the past) that we will sit together (in the future)". Aug 30, 2011 at 12:00
  1. If you could please make sure we sit together, I'd appreciate it.

Here, "sat" would be wrong (unless you were writing a science-fiction novel about time travel), because you can't ask someone to alter the past. I think you are confusing the indicative with the subjunctive. The sentence as it stands is a conditional setting up an indicative.

  1. They made sure we sat together.

Again, this is indicative. These events happened already. If you were to use sit, it would mean that the sitting had not happened yet, and you were using the subjunctive mood to indicate something that was about to take place. If you were currently sitting, you would still say sat because sitting has taken place (and will continue for a period of time).

Even so, it would be clearer and less awkward to say

  1. They made sure we would sit together.

You would only substitute will for would in this case if no sitting has yet occurred.

  • Is this subjunctive? If adjacent seats are available, they may be sat together on the plane. If not, what is it? ... I am confused.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Aug 30, 2011 at 14:10
  • @z&sg: It's conditional, not subjunctive. "Were adjacent seats available ..." would be an example of the subjunctive mood.
    – Robusto
    Aug 30, 2011 at 18:27
  • 'They made sure we will sit together' --- Could we use 'will' if sitting has not yet occurred at the time of stating this? I just wanted to make sure I hold the whole concept okay. <<< Ooops! This is what you mentioned above. I tried to cancel this comment unsuccessfully.
    – Sssamy
    Aug 31, 2011 at 3:37
  • @SSsamy: Yes, that would work, so long as you hadn't yet sat.
    – Robusto
    Aug 31, 2011 at 3:39

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