Somebody told me about the following sentence:

"In 2017, researchers published their specifications for a new e-voting system, which has the potential of being accepted as a nationwide e-voting platform."

that "has" needs to be changed to "had" because of sequence of tenses. Is that correct? Because "had" sounds kind of wrong to me, from a semantic perspective, because the system still has the potential...

  • @Lambie Avoid answering questions in comments. Post comments here only to ask for more information or suggest improvements. Other types of comment can be posted in the main chatroom or a chatroom created for the purpose. – MetaEd Jan 2 '18 at 16:50
  • Frankly, I would delete this question or move it to ELL. I was just trying to cut to the chase. I notice many long-time answer posters do in fact answer questions in comments. For example: english.stackexchange.com/questions/379635/… Have you told them? – Lambie Jan 2 '18 at 16:54
  • @Lambie Such tu quoque “arguments” don't help anything. Please don't argue in comments even if you do manage something that isn’t a logical fallacy; if you have a concern, you should please post a new question about it on our Meta, not comment here. – tchrist Jan 2 '18 at 18:25
  • @tchrist Why don't you tell that to MetaEd? I am not arguing, I am saying rules apply to everyone, not just me. When I see the rule applied in the link I gave, I will remove what I said. – Lambie Jan 2 '18 at 18:31
  • @Lambie SE sites are curated by users and volunteer mods as time permits. The same rules apply to everyone, but the attention actually paid to individual posts varies from day to day, and the way that volunteers understand and handle each situation varies also. It is unrealistic to expect a free pass on the grounds that the community has not perfectly curated every other similar post on the site with complete self-consistency. Thank you for highlighting that other question for moderator review. The best way to do that is actually to throw a flag. Comments here should address the question. – MetaEd Jan 2 '18 at 18:54

Your intuition is right. There is no grammatical requirement of tense agreement between the main clause and its dependent clause. In each clause, you simply choose the tense which conveys the intended meaning. So in your example, "has" would be used if the system now has the potential. "Had" would be used if the system had the potential but does not now.

I should clarify that there are limitations on what tense you can use in some types of dependent clause. For example:

I will let you know when I am ready to be picked up


*I will let you know when I will be ready to be picked up


*I will let you know when I was ready to be picked up

Of course you could argue that these are, in a sense, errors of semantics – that they are grammatically correct nonsense. The second example would be perfectly acceptable if what you mean is that at some point in the future you will announce to your friend the time at which you will be ready. The third example would be perfectly acceptable if what you mean is that at some point in the future you will disclose information about a time in the past when you were ready to be picked up.

  • But what about: "The verb in the subordinate clause changes its tense in accordance with the tense of the verb in the main clause" englishgrammar.org/sequence-tenses – netik Jan 2 '18 at 16:54
  • Both are possible. It's fine to use "had" even though the system still has potential. Compare "Thorough testing proved that the painting was genuine" which uses backshifted "was" even though the painting is still genuine today. – BillJ Jan 2 '18 at 16:55
  • @netik There are different types of subordinate clause. Some have less flexibility than others. For example, see in your linked page under subordinate clauses introduced by than. There are good examples there of subordinate clauses with no tense linkage. – MetaEd Jan 2 '18 at 16:57
  • I will let you know when I will be ready to be picked up would be entirely valid if you meant, "when I find out when I'll be ready, I'll let you know". – Will Crawford Jan 2 '18 at 17:53
  • @WillCrawford Exactly. – MetaEd Jan 2 '18 at 17:53

Because the voting system refers to the very particular one that the researchers had in front of them in the past (it's not an eternal, abstract concept of an e-voting system that is necessarily accessible to all people at all times), unless you specify, for instance "...which I believe still has the potential..." then you should refer to it with "had," because the voting system you're talking about is one that existed instantaneously at the specified moment in the past.


No, that part of the sentence is fine as it is (for the reasons @MetaEd gives). What does need changing is that potential of which is revolting and should become potential to be accepted.

... has the potential to be accepted

... has a chance of being accepted

... could be accepted

... might be accepted

  • 1
    Why was this downvoted? Is it not correct? – user66875 Jan 2 '18 at 17:21
  • 1
    Good question - [snarkiness removed] - I can't tell if it's a "you didn't answer the question" downvote or an "I disagree with you" downvote :) – Will Crawford Jan 2 '18 at 17:52
  • Not my downvote, but "had" is just as acceptable as "has". Backshift happens quite generally in constructions where one clause is embedded within a larger one containing a preterite verb. Also, compare, "The invention of nuclear weapons gave us the potential to destroy the planet". It still does, of course, but preterite "gave" is perfectly acceptable. – BillJ Jan 2 '18 at 19:25
  • .. but I was agreeing that both "had" and "has" were equally grammatical (and I added examples to highlight why I think to be is more appropriate than of being :o)) – Will Crawford Jan 2 '18 at 19:28

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