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I was doing a grammar practice question where we are to spot the mistakes in the sentences and I came across this sentence:

It was only when I came closer to it that I realized it wouldn’t be as easy as it seem.

The mistake is obviously 'seem' so I changed it to 'seemed'. However when I checked the answer it is 'seems'. Trying to find answers online, I came across a website that said to use the past tense when referring to a specific past that's wrong. In this case obviously the author's impression that it would be easy is wrong and so I really don't know why the correct answer is in present tense. Am I wrong or is the answer key wrong?

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You are right; past tenst tense would be correct here. However, whoever wrote that exercise may have been trying to use what is sometimes called the timeless present. In other words, it seemed easy then, it still does, and it always will. I don't think that that is enough to prefer the timeless present here,1 but apparently the exercise-writer did.

By the way, you do something similar in your post. Consider this sentence:

However when I checked the answer it is 'seems'.

You describe your past action with the past tense, but when describing the answer (which perhaps could be considered "timeless") you use the present tense. As with the exercise question, I'd prefer that both verbs be in the past tense, but others might have a different opinion.


1I prefer the past tense for two reasons. First, in this sentence the issue of how it "seemed" to the narrator appears to be more important than how it "seems" in general. Second, all of the other verbs in this sentence are in the past, so we get a concordance of tenses and everything seems very consistent to the reader.

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    One assumes 'the answer' hasn't been changed, and if this is a known fact 'is' conveys the situation more definitively.. Sep 3, 2022 at 13:43
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    @EdwinAshworth I'd still prefer the past tense, but I agree that present is justifiable. I'll add a note explaining my reasoning better. Sep 3, 2022 at 13:45
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    A sound answer. It may have "seemed" at the past time but it does not follow that it "seems" now. It may have changed, whatever "it" is. Or the speaker may have new difficulties in it.
    – Anton
    Sep 3, 2022 at 17:58
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    Neither answer should be 'preferred here'; this is a test, and neither answer is incorrect. It might well be different if context were provided. Sep 3, 2022 at 18:39
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Whoever wrote the practice question and the answer may have been using it to address a usage among some communities of speakers of non-standard English, in which “seem” is substituted for standard “seems,” a pattern that is prevalent among certain speakers of English.

However, I do not think that either “seems” or simply “seemed” is correct, and the best phrasing in standard English would have been “had seemed.” The reasons:

The “seeming easy” occurred before the “realizing,” which changed the person's mind. Therefore, at the moment of the realizing, the “seeming easy” was already in the past. But the realizing occurred before the speaker spoke, so he or she put it in the past tense: “I realized.” In standard English, when we refer to one event that occurred before a past event, we use the past perfect tense, which, in this case would read: “I realized it would not be as easy as it had seemed.”

The reason “seems” is not correct (in my opinion) is that at the moment when the speaker had the realization, it no longer seemed easy to him or her. Therefore by using “seems” the speaker would seem to be asserting both that it no longer seemed easy, and yet, that it still “seems” easy, obviously nonsensical as self-contradictory.

Using the simple past “seemed” does not cure the difficulty, because it places the “realizing” and the “seeming” at the same time in the past, leaving the same nonsensical self contradiction; when, in fact, the contradiction disappears if the “seeming” is placed previous to the “realizing,” by the proper use of the past perfect “not as easy as it had seemed.”

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  • It seems to me that it would be rather unusual for a native English speaker to use had seemed in that sentence, even if that is the most "grammatically correct" tense. Apr 19, 2023 at 11:11
  • @ Peter Shor I agree that, colloquially, we native English speakers usually take precisely the short cut that you refer to. But the question was in fact addressed to the "grammatically correct" tense, which, in formal writing, I, as a native English speaker, would in fact use. Apr 19, 2023 at 11:19
  • @Peter : Yes, Anglophones love to simplify, and the past simple is often preferred to the past perfect, even when arguably suboptimal, provided there is no loss of clarity (and NTD readily deduces the true sense here), and no ridiculous complication or introduction of unwanted quirkiness. // Of course, 'acceptability' hereabouts involves both idiomaticity (the vox populi) as well as grammaticality ... and idiomaticity almost always wins (ignoring the other caveats above). Indeed, one subset of idioms is the extragrammatical (one can hardly label established usages 'ungrammatical'). Apr 19, 2023 at 11:22
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It was only when I came closer to it that I realized it wouldn’t be as easy as it seems.

As it currently seems to you now.

It was only when I came closer to it that I realized it wouldn’t be as easy as it seemed.

As it, at that time in the past, seemed to me.

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