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"Who told you that the agreement has already been signed?"

I wonder whether we should observe the sequence of tenses rule and make it "Who told you that the agreement had already been signed?"

  • You can, but you don’t have to. Both work, but mean slightly different things. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 27 '18 at 9:27
  • Could you please tell me the difference in meanings you mentioned? – Ilya Kushlianski Jan 27 '18 at 10:04
  • With has, the meaning is that the contract is currently in a signed state; i.e., “Who told you that the contract is currently signed”. With had, the contract was in a signed state when the statement was made, but may not be anymore (though it probably is, since contracts don’t usually become unsigned). “He told me he’s very angry” = he’s angry now. “He told me he was angry” = he was angry when he said it, but he may not be angry anymore. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 27 '18 at 10:11
  • Uh… that has nothing to do with sequence of tense, or backshift, or anything of the kind. Whether an agreement "had or "has" been signed depends purely on the context; what the author meant, unless there were mistakes. What the reader or scholar thinks might have been meant could have much bearing on interpreting those mistakes. – Robbie Goodwin Feb 17 '18 at 0:34
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The sequence of tenses is also called backshift. It is better to regard it as a common usage rather than a rule to be applied in all cases. As The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (p45) states in its entry on backshift:

... backshift (sometimes known as the sequence of tense rule) is not automatic.

The Cambridge Dictionary of English Grammar (p318) has this extract in its entry on sequence of tenses:

In classical Latin the tense of the verb in the main clause influenced that of the verb in the following subordinate clause, especially in reported speech. This principle was taken up by traditional grammarians in modern English.

...

In formal writing and reporting, the sequence of tenses is usually practiced, whereas in everyday discourse it is not necessarily observed.

The CDEG gives examples in which observing the sequence of tenses rule would either change the meaning of the sentence or would render it ambiguous. It then states:

In such cases, the pragmatics of communication take over to ensure that the tense sequence works to support the intended meaning.

As @Janus Bahs Jacquet points out in his comment, the use of the present tense in the reported clause (has already been signed) indicates to the listener that the report is currently in a signed state. The present tense is used to emphasise present relevance.

The backshifted version, using the past perfect tense (had already been signed), places more emphasis on the time point of the signing; namely, before the reporting of it.


There have been numerous questions about backshifting on this site. Here is one that contains an answer with further extracts from reference grammars on the issue:

Problem with backshift in reporting clauses

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