I've had trouble with verb-tense agreement since day one of English learning.

According to a lot of native speakers who have addressed this subject on several English forums, when the tenses in a sentence aren't consistent, it will immediately sound weird to their ears. For instance, one ought to say

"I thought you couldn't take a picture here"

instead of

"I thought you can't take a picture here"

even when the prohibition of picture-taking is still in effect.

However, when I tried to say "I guess that..." or "I suspect that...," I wondered if I had to do the same. Then, I Googled a bit, and realized that with suspect/guess, tense agreement works differently. A lot of people say things like "I guess he didn't" and so on. Is it true that with verbs like guess and suspect, different grammar is involved? Am I mistaken?

I'd really appreciate it if someone would shed some light on this. Thank you.

  • The total acceptability of 'He says that you were there' and 'He said that you will live to be ninety' shows that agreement isn't always obligatory. I'm intrigued that "Jill said that you couldn't take pictures here" and "Jill said that you can't take pictures here" both sound fine to my ears, but "I thought you can't take pictures here" sounds unnatural. Perhaps dropping the 'that' has a jarring effect, but I think there's more to it than that. [Pun just happened.] – Edwin Ashworth Mar 29 '18 at 11:26
  • This is a very interesting contribution you've made here. (I hope I do not sound condescending using "contribution." Couldn't think of any other way to say it.) I feel that the verb used in your examples is the reason. "Jill said" means that you are quoting something, thus the tense within said quotation does not necessarily have to be past tense. Perhaps my examples with the photo-taking shebang is actually rather unique, and therefore tense-agreement-specific. – Yeti Ape Mar 30 '18 at 7:01

While I might not have the best knowledge of the rules of English grammar, I hope this explains it a bit..

"I thought you couldn't take a picture here"

Due to the use of past tense couldn't, this implies that the action is already over. You would say this to someone showing you a picture for example.

"I thought you can't take a picture here"

This is usually said during the action, such as when you see someone taking a picture.

Since you would use the latter during the act itself, there is no reason why you would use the past tense of think and hence the reason why it sounds weird.

Verbs like guess and suspect are used in the present as they convey your present ideas about past events.

For example:

I guess he couldn't do it.

You think now about that he couldn't do it in the past. The main sentence is still present. A better example that shows this concept:

He says that he couldn't do it.

He is telling us_now_ about what happened in the past. The clause is past while the main sentence is still present.

The difference with your examples is that I thought is already past tense. There is no correct way (afaik) to use a present clause while the main sentence is past tense.

  • Though I'm from the UK, I fully agree with MSeanF's judgement at Reddit (though I'd drop the first five words): 'If you are learning English I recommend you don't use "I thought you can't ". It sounds awkward to me as a native speaker (U.S.) By the way, Tomorrowland [where the example under discussion occurs] was a flop here partly because the dialogue was off-putting.' – Edwin Ashworth Mar 29 '18 at 11:24
  • Yes, I did read that thread. That's why I'm more confused as to why that rule does not work regarding guess/suspect. – Yeti Ape Mar 29 '18 at 11:38
  • Added the answer to guess/suspect – Nick Lersberghe Mar 29 '18 at 13:54
  • I would never say: I thought you can't and I am an AmE speaker, as it were. I'd mark it as "uneducated register" myself. Do "people" say it, yes. Does it sound awful to educated peers' ears? [ha ha]. Indeed, it does. – Lambie Mar 29 '18 at 14:05
  • @Nick Lersberghe I'm sorry to say that this explanation you have provided still does not seem satisfactory. I do not understand why the logic cannot apply to the verb "think," because if the temporality of one's action (i.e. thinking) is the deciding factor, one should be able to get away with "I thought you can't do it" if the speaker had the notion before, but not anymore. (This, of course, is something even I wouldn't say myself.) – Yeti Ape Mar 30 '18 at 6:28

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