I have a question that, as the title suggests, relates to tense agreement between an -ing phrase and its subordinate clause.

I have seen other similar questions, such as present/past tense in a subordinate clause and Present tense in the narrative past tense, but I think my question is somewhat different.

Consider the sentence:

(1) John looks at the photo and remembers Maria telling him that she loved him

and the sentence:

(2) John looks at the photo and remembers Maria telling him that she loves him

Are they both grammatically correct [perhaps with (1) implying she doesn't love him anymore, whereas in (2) she still does], or is only (1) the grammatically correct one?

I have this instinctive feeling that only (1) is grammatically correct, but it would be a bit puzzling from a structural point of view, since we have a verb in present tense ("remembers") and an -ing clause. In other words, it's only a semantic element (the function of the verb "remember") that places the action in the past.

Any thoughts on the matter?


I thought to start a bounty, so let me clarify the question further.

If it is grammatical to say:

John hears Maria telling him she loves him

is it also grammatical to say:

John remembers Maria telling him she loves him

or would we have to use she loved him instead. And if this is the case, can there be non-semantic reasons justifying the choice? In other words, is there anything besides the semantic function of the verb remember, referring to an action that occurred in the past, which dictates the past tense?

  • 2
    It is just that the that indicates indirect (reported) speech and so you need past tense: loved. No sweat. – Kris Oct 30 '18 at 9:49
  • 1
    Could you elaborate? I don't see how the indirect speech (when the main-clause verb is in the present tense) has something to do with it. Consider the sentence: "John looks at the photo and hears Maria telling him that she loved/loves him". The difference here is perhaps clearer in regard to what I meant when I talked about semantics – Digital Dracula Oct 30 '18 at 12:34
  • Apparently you tend to mix up the tense of verb hear/remember with that the verb love -- like look is in the present, so will hear/remember be, but love is further down the line after that in a different clause. – Kris Oct 31 '18 at 8:04
  • I'm still not sure what you're trying to say. To the best of my knowledge, indirect speech in a subordinate clause (that-clause) is relevant only if the main-clause verb is in the past. We say I heard her saying "I love you" but we say I heard her saying that she loved me. In our examples, with the main-clause verb in the present, I don't see why it wouldn't be grammatical to say I hear her saying that she loves me or I hear her saying that she loved me (which would be the indirect speech version of I hear her saying "I loved you"). Have I misunderstood you? – Digital Dracula Oct 31 '18 at 8:17

Are they both grammatically correct [perhaps with (1) implying she doesn't love him anymore, whereas in (2) she still does], or is only (1) the grammatically correct one?

Yes, they are both correct. The change of tense with loves/loved potentially alters the meaning, but this is perfectly fine in terms of grammar.

In each case, John remembers [NB: present tense] Maria telling him something. That "something" was a statement of fact (let's ignore the possibility that it may not have been true). Because he's remembering it, logically it must have happened in the past. At that time in the past, Maria told him X, but the choice of tense indicates whether the "X" is confined to that point in the past, or might have a continuing validity into the present.

Sentence (1) indicates that Maria loved John then, i.e. at the time she made the statement. However, we can't infer anything about more recent times. John is simply remembering a time when she verbalised her love. Maybe it was the first time she'd said it. Maybe there have been other times since when she has also said it. She may well still love him. On the other hand, maybe he knows that she no longer loves him. She may even be deceased, in which case the present tense would only work in a spiritual sense. In any case, the past tense simply locates her statement in the past, and doesn't enable us to infer anything beyond that.

Sentence (2), however, creates a dilemma. One interpretation is that she loves him in the narrative present. This seems pretty straight forward and needs no further explanation. The other interpretation is that we're being invited into the "historic present" of his memory of that event. It's as if the narrative of that event has changed to the present tense, the effect of which is to locate her statement in that time - the same as if the past tense had been used.

No doubt it's this ambiguity in sentence (2) that gives rise to a sense that using the present tense is not grammatically correct. In fact there's no problem with the grammar. It's just that we have to rely on further context to make sense of the currency of the love he's remembering being told about.

Regarding the edit and the additional argument:

  1. there's no problem with the grammar, so this is a null argument; and
  2. while a memory can only be located in the past, it's important not to overlook the semantic role of "telling". What Maria tells John can be either historic (past) or continuing (present). This is quite independent of whether John "hears" it or "remembers" it. For example, maybe Maria is reminding him that she did love him at some time in the past: "John hears Maria telling him she loved him."
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  • This is the kind of answer I was looking for. Precise, detailed, revealing. I'll award the bounty as soon as the required 24-hr period elapses. Cheers. – Digital Dracula Nov 6 '18 at 12:45

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