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Please consider the following:

  1. I knew the building (IS/WAS) thirty feet tall.
  2. They realized I (AM/WAS) his son.

My question: both those clauses contain general truths. So, do I need to use the present, or the past?

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If the clause after knew or realized is a general truth, or more specifically, if it is still true, we can use either the past or the present.

This website, talking about backshifting, says

Backshifting occurs not only with indirect speech, but also with reported feelings and thoughts expressed frequently with verbs such as know, think, realize, and forget.

and

In certain situations, the sequence of tense rules are relaxed and backshifting is not required. Essentially, backshifting is not required if a statement about the present or future still holds. . . .

So the rules for verbs like realized and knew are the same as the reported speech: if the fact is still true, then you can use either the past or the present. In speech and writing, we usually use the past unless there is some reason to emphasize that the fact is still true.

If you want an actual example in print, in New York Magazine, in 1972, Mario Puzo says about Francis Ford Coppola:

That's when I knew he was really a director.

Coppola never stopped being a director. And Mario Puzo presumably spoke English well: he was born in New York, and is the author of the book The Godfather, and coauthor of The Godfather screenplay, which Coppola directed.

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    Yes. Swan in Practical English Usage (p276) says: After past reporting verbs, we usually change the original tenses even if the things the original speaker says are still true. 'I told the police I was British. (The speaker still is British'). – Shoe Mar 27 at 10:28
  • @Shoe I agree with Peter’s answer but I think it can’t be supported to say what most English speakers say. I’ve seen a lot of variations and situations which necessitate changing “rules.” – michael_timofeev Mar 27 at 11:05
  • @michael_timofeev. Both Peter Shor above and Swan state that backshift 'usually' takes place. And both Swan and ThoughtCo say that backshift is not required if, in Swan's words, "the original speaker's present and future are still present and future". So in general I agree that it is unhelpful to talk of rules at all in this context. But I'm not sure I agree that Peter's answer 'can't be supported by what most English speakers say'. Perhaps I'll do some research on this if I can find the time. – Shoe Mar 27 at 13:02
  • Maybe I should comment more on that word "usually". I would say that backshift is the default, but there are lots of situations where you make an exception because the fact that it's still true is relevant, important, or even just interesting. – Peter Shor Mar 27 at 13:08
  • @Shoe I respect Swan as a source but the problem with researching this is how does one find out what st least a billion people consider normal or usually say? It treats language as some kind of mathematical law which people are compelled to obey. I think the answer is fine but this one is more open than other questions which are more cut and dried so to speak. Google books is the wrong place to go for support as it is written language. – michael_timofeev Mar 27 at 13:09

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