2

I have found a few questions on the site regarding habitual action and tenses, but nothing addresses my specific query. I want to know whether it is acceptable to use the present tense to describe a habitual action, one that the person still does, in a sentence where the main verb is in another tense. Do you think the following sentences are acceptable, or are they breaking the sequence of tenses rule?

He must have known that I always walk my dog in that park. Why else would he have been there?

She knew that I don't answer the door after 8 pm, so she rang me instead.

She knew I never use Skype. That's why she came over to my desk to tell me the news.

I thought you knew I don't drink?

5
  • 2
    They're all just right. Oct 26, 2021 at 20:08
  • 2
    Clauses stand on their own, so all fair game: I will hear tomorrow if I failed yesterday's test. Had she known, and I am not going to say she should have, I would not be telling her now, you know? If I was buying milk for the recipe, why didn't I grab some onions, too? Oct 26, 2021 at 20:49
  • 2
    Where do people get the idea that you'll go blind if you mix tenses in a clause? Oct 26, 2021 at 21:00
  • 2
    Thank you for the reply. So are "She knew" and " I never use Skype" two separate clauses? And likewise are "She knew" and "that I don't answer the door after 8 pm" separate and therefore can have different tenses? And does my last example comprise three different clauses?
    – JJ_Doogal
    Oct 26, 2021 at 21:01
  • 1
    Yes, yes, and yes. That is a great signal, and so is the implied that. Oct 26, 2021 at 22:27

2 Answers 2

2

The answer to this query is found in A comprehensive grammar of the English language.

(CoGEL § 19.42) Special Uses of present and past

[…] the present tense can cooccur in textual structures with two distinct types of time references: ordinary 'state present' and universal 'state present' (timeless)

♦ I think she had undergone an operation before I met her. [ordinary]
♦ Troilus is totally fancy-free until he sees Creyside. [timeless]

A third type of present, 'habitual', is common in ordinary narrative, and it can really cooccur with past tenses:

♦ I had forgotten that they dine very early and I arrived at an awkward moment for both them and me.

He must have known that I always walk my dog in that park. Why else would he have been there?

She knew that I don't answer the door after 8 pm, so she rang me instead.

She knew I never use Skype. That's why she came over to my desk to tell me the news.

I thought you knew I don't drink?

In all four sentences, the type of present used is the habitual present, (I am in the habit of walking my dog…/of not answering the door…/of never using Skype…/of not drinking); therefore there is no problem in using it with the past perfect and the past simple, as this is done in the sentences; it follows that there is no error in those sentences. Here is another instance , that of a sentence in which is found the past perfect.

  • If she had known I spend Sunday mornings fishing by the pond, she would have found me.
2
  • 1
    Many thanks for the answer. That excerpt is a great find, although I have a question regarding the Trolius example. Are there meant to be two distinct tenses in that example? I can only see the present tense.
    – JJ_Doogal
    Oct 27, 2021 at 0:33
  • 2
    @JJ_Doogal It happens that a past tense is found in the first of the two examples, but an illustration relative to the query wasn't the idea; for instance, the example "I think there are many nice days before us." would have done just as well in view of the aim of these examples, which is, as a preliminary, to situate what is meant by the two sorts of present first introduced. I included that as a sort of quick refresher so as to understand better the third type of state present, the habitual present, that which really matters in the query.
    – LPH
    Oct 27, 2021 at 3:27
0

I can't say for certain (not claiming expertise I don't have), but none of those sounds correct, tense-wise. I would change them as follows:

He must have known that I always walk my dog in the park. Why else was he there?

(alternatively, why must he have known? perhaps preceding or following sentences would provide context, were this a story. However, as it stands, much like the rest of these sentences, it just feels clunky.

She knows that I don't answer the door after 8 pm, so she rang me instead.*

(...does she have alzheimer's? is there a reason she doesn't know this any more, as implied?)

She knows I never use Skype. That's why she came over to my desk to tell me the news.

(same as the last)

I thought you knew I didn't drink?

Alternatively: I thought you know I don't drink?, or: I don't drink. I thought you knew. just my two cents. love it or leave it.

Perhaps a true English scholar would like to answer?

2
  • So for the "She knew that I don't answer the door..." example, would it be more acceptable if the context is that "she" is deceased, and the speaker is talking to a police detective about the last time he spoke to her (on the phone)? May I know how you would rewrite the first example? I suppose the context is that the narrator has recently become worried that a stranger, the "he", is following him, and he keeps seeing him at various locations, including his local park. The sentence could be his inner thoughts as he worries to himself, or maybe dialogue as he confides in a close friend.
    – JJ_Doogal
    Oct 26, 2021 at 20:46
  • "She knows" is fine in those cases when the relationship with the given women (or girl) still goes on; but suppose that she is dead; then only the past is proper. The relationship can have ended differently, death is just a drastic case that should drive the idea home better.
    – LPH
    Oct 26, 2021 at 21:05

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.