Bob wants to know if he is a father or not. A day later, Bob learns that he's a father. Then three years pass.

Now which of the following is correct and why?

  1. Three years ago, Bob wanted to know if he is a father or not.

  2. Three years ago, Bob wanted to know if he was a father or not.

Any help is appreciated! But I would greatly appreciate an explanation with your answer. Thank you!

  • 1
    "Then three years passes." should be "Then three years pass.", because years is plural. – Javatasse Jul 30 '18 at 0:49
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    Definitely "was". Because the time at which he wanted to know his paternity/fatherhood was in the past. So "was". And sorry, but I couldn't resist: youtu.be/vt2i0ts-uck?t=2s – Zebrafish Jul 30 '18 at 0:59
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    @Javatasse Three years, like ten dollars, can be considered as a single unit, and as such can take a singular verb. This topic has been beaten to death on this site. – Arm the good guys in America Jul 30 '18 at 2:59
  • @Knotell Is this topic you refer to the topic of synesis, aka "notional agreement"? – Zebrafish Oct 28 '18 at 22:18
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    Is there a reason there has been so many downvotes here? The answers are legitimate and can't see any other viable one. I don't think this reputation-assassination inspires contributions. – Dennis R. Hidalgo Oct 1 '19 at 5:51


You're talking about an event in the past since "wanted" is in the past. Three years ago is not the present, so "is" can't be used. It's that simple.

  • 3
    No idea why this was downvoted, it's the only correct answer. – Mari-Lou A Aug 25 '19 at 14:08

No matter what, it will be the past-tense. Three years ago, Bob wanted to know if he was a father or not. Not because it is "three years ago" but because of the reported speech -- "he wanted to know."

I asked him "Am I eligible?"

I wanted to know if I was eligible.

meta: This question may better be asked on [ell.se]

  • I see. Interesting. – High Jul 30 '18 at 8:54
  • There is no reported speech in the question. – Benjamin Harman Aug 25 '19 at 9:29
  • This is a form of subjunctive mood, not tense, and is not limited to reported speech. If it was, then tense agreement would still trump the present tense. – vectory Aug 25 '19 at 12:40
  • @vectory - This is not a form of the subjunctive mood. "Was" doesn't appear in the subjunctive mood. "Were" does. This is using the past tense of what in present tense would be "He wants to know if he is the father." – Benjamin Harman Aug 25 '19 at 12:53
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    @vectory - Sorry, you've misunderstood something about how the subjunctive works in English. Here's what would work for the subjunctive: He wishes he were the king of the world. (Your second clause, I would too if I were that rich is fine.) Also note, there is no subjunctive in the question as written, and subjunctive wouldn't fit there. OP is just asking whether to use present or past (is vs. was). – aparente001 Sep 1 '19 at 4:24


English is a tricky bastard.

And either sentence is possible (i.e., grammatical), given the right circumstances.

Say the speaker (let's call him Sal) is narrating an event that takes place entirely in the past, that is, he's telling a story or relating an event in the present from the point of view that it is over and done with; in this case you get the more probable result that (2) is correct, precisely because it is past narration, or narration about the past.

On the other hand, for (1) to be correctly used, consider Sal to be a story-teller, but this time he is telling a story about the present, and in doing so he uses the historical present, also called the story-telling present. Then, Sal can spin off some thing like

Three years ago, Bob wanted to know if he is a father or not. Today, Bob wants to know if he is an uncle or not.

Here, Sal switches midway through his first sentence from past narration to historical present. His use of if he is a father or not alerts the listener to this switch and prepares said listener for the present tense in his second sentence. The parallel use of present tense is in both sentences is important to Sal's story and it wouldn't carry the same force without it.

Which, once again, asking for analysis of individual sentences devoid of functional and/or communicative context as well as perceived speaker's intention is chock full of problems and hardly allows for how language is used.

  • I'd think in AmE, anything "is possible (i.e., grammatical)." – Kris Aug 26 '19 at 10:16

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