I’m trying to write a sentence in which the primary action occurred in the past, but within that sentence is another subject–verb pair in which the verb describes a perpetual state of being.

Here is my original sentence, which recounts a time when I was getting familiar with Christianity as a child:

  1. I had no idea what a savior is.

Here savior is is the subject–verb pair in question. It sounds funny to me, but it seems grammatically correct. I’m not sure though.

I tried the following variation:

  1. I had no idea what “savior” means.

Again, I feel like this is correct, but with had as past tense and means as present tense, they sound off in the same sentence.

If I change is and means to past tense are and meant, they sound better in my head.

  1. I had no idea what a savior was.
  2. I had no idea what “savior” meant.

But the word savior will always have a definition, and the concept of a savior will always exist.

So the is/means verbs “should” be in present tense, shouldn’t they?

2 Answers 2


Interesting question. You are describing your past perception of something that you believe is defined for all time.

Let us assume for the purpose of argument that savior had, has and always will have a permanent definition. (The assumption is of course questionable, for who can foresee the future?)

Because of that permanency "what that {permanent definition} was" is perfectly synonymous with "what that {permanent definition} is".

Is there any difference in the usage? If you use "savior was", you direct the reader's attention to your perception at that past time when you considered a savior; you also leave open the possibility that the definition may change in future. If you use "savior is", you focus slightly more on the permanency of the meaning of savior. But, given the synonymity, these are trivial and arguable differences, and you may use either construct.


The more correct usage would be

I had no idea what a savior was.


I had no idea what "savior" meant.

In each case they are sticking with the description of the past condition. They may change later in your description but until the present description comes around it is all past perfect.

  • I think "correct" is ungradeable, and your first sentence should be the more positive: "The correct use is ..." It is clear that the writer did not know (simple past) then but knows now.
    – Greybeard
    Aug 4, 2022 at 11:34

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