I know the past tense carries the past tense in every dependent clause, but referring specifically to places or to things that are eternal, like the Earth, seems a bit weird and therefore we sometimes (I believe incorrectly) say

He didn't know that New Jersey was actually on the East Coast.

Because it still is. Or

He thought the Earth was round.

So is it square now?

Logically speaking, would you consider the use of past tense here a bit confusing in a day-to-day speech in these examples? Would you instinctively opt for using the present tense?

  • 4
    Your first example is correct. While no one would misunderstand you if you used the second example, it would be appropriate if NASA had changed its name. The second example would also be appropriate if it was a more distant past in which you found out. Commented Feb 9, 2014 at 6:41
  • 4
    Both versions are fine. The second version just happens to use a backshifted preterite ("stood") in the subordinate clause.
    – F.E.
    Commented Feb 9, 2014 at 7:12
  • Here's a link to a post that I wrote on backshifting: english.stackexchange.com/a/149167/57102
    – F.E.
    Commented Feb 9, 2014 at 7:17
  • Here are two posts on the topic of backshift: english.stackexchange.com/a/149167/57102 , english.stackexchange.com/a/150743/57102 , which might be helpful.
    – F.E.
    Commented May 18, 2014 at 21:49
  • @F.E., Seeing that the other has 4 votes and 5 votes, Do you have better sources and more conclusive evidence other than "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985)"?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 4:46

7 Answers 7


Both tenses are OK, but I believe the past tense is a bit more common: it may be somewhat contrary to logic, but it sounds better. Harmony of tenses (if that's what it's called) is a linguistic phenomenon that is not always very logical.

  • 2
    Harmony, agreement, sequence, succession, you name it.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 9:32
  • 1
    It's largely the invention of schoolteachers. And the fact that there are no good predictive rules to share, as well as the frequent occurrence of clueless questions like this (and the more recent one that links to this question) is evidence that there is no "sequence of tenses" rule in English. Otherwise one could do better than wave one's hands about it's "not always being logical". Commented Apr 19, 2014 at 19:18
  • 1
    @Cerberus: There is no "external rule" to appeal to. Tenses are determined by the speaker. Commented Apr 20, 2014 at 2:45
  • 1
    @JohnLawler: The external rule is that, under relevant circumstances, one normally does not use a past tense to describe something that is also about the present. The violation of this rule is what makes it somewhat surprising to everyone. Commented Apr 20, 2014 at 2:51
  • 1
    And where is this rule inscribed? It sounds like a Gricean implicature to me, and those are subject to well-known constraints. Commented Apr 20, 2014 at 2:53

The clauses that New Jersey was actually in the East Coast and the Earth was round are known in functional grammar as 'projected clauses'. They behave in the same way as clauses that contain what is known in traditional grammar as 'reported speech'. As the authors of the ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ explain:

Simple past tense has a special use in reported speech or thought. The original speech or thoughts may have been in present tense, but past tense is usually used for the reports . . . Notice that the circumstances may still be continuing even though past tense is used (My emphasis).

  • ... While if the present tense is [correctly] used, the circumstances must still be continuing (at the time the statement is made. Even towns are sometimes relocated.) // But not the whole story. Although 'He didn't know where New Jersey was' and 'He didn't know where New Jersey is' are both acceptable and nigh on identical in meaning, while 'He didn't know where his brother was' and 'He didn't know where his brother is' are both available with possibly different meanings, 'I thought the name of this colour [pointing] is vermilion' sounds unnatural to my ears. Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 11:09

1.) "Last week, I found out that NASA stands for 'National Aeronautics and Space Administration.'"


2.) "Last week, I found out that NASA stood for 'National Aeronautics and Space Administration.'"

Both versions #1 and #2 are acceptable. It's up to you (or your editor) as to which one you want to use. The second version happens to use a backshifted preterite ("stood") in the subordinate clause.

To explain backshifting, it might be easier to use an example.

Assume that Kim has blue eyes, and that Tom knows that. And then Tom tells me,

  • "Kim has blue eyes."

Then I can tell you,

  • "Tom told me that Kim had blue eyes."

which has backshifting. Or I can choose to not use backshifting,

  • "Tom told me that Kim has blue eyes."

Both versions are fine. Note that Kim's eye color is assumed to be a permanent sort of thing.

The above examples used sentences that involved indirect reported speech. Though those are the types of examples often used to demonstrate the use of backshifting, backshifting also happens often in other types of construction: constructions where the matrix clause is headed by a past-tense verb form or when the time of the matrix clause situation is the past.

For an example that could use backshifting but that doesn't involving indirect reported speech:

  • "Last week, Tom found out that Kim had blue eyes." -- (backshifted)

  • "Last week, Tom found out that Kim has blue eyes." -- (not backshifted)

both of the above versions are fine.

Sometimes, depending on the purpose of the sentence, there can be a preference for either the non-backshifted version or for the backshifted version. Sometimes the non-backshifted version might be considered to be "much more widely appropriate" than the backshifted version. Sometimes the backshifted version is obligatory.

Note that the examples I've used are either borrowed from or related to the examples used in the 2005 textbook by Huddleston and Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, pages 47-8.

From that textbook, on page 48, is the excerpt:

Although indirect reported speech represents the most obvious case, backshift also happens quite generally in constructions where one clause is embedded within a larger one containing a preterite verb: . . .



There's a common misconception that a present-tense verb being used in its timeless sense (or other related uses) cannot be backshifted. That is untrue, as backshifting is still generally available. For instance, in the older 1985 reference grammar by Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, section 14.31, page 1027:

Here are other examples where present forms may be retained in indirect speech:

  • Their teacher had told them that the earth moves around the sun. -- [11]

. . .

In all these sentences, past forms may also be used, by optional application of the backshift rule. Sentence [11] has the simple present in its timeless use, . . .

And so, according to Quirk et al., the following backshifted version (to correspond to [11]) is also acceptable:

  • Their teacher had told them that the earth moved around the sun.
  • 2
    re "obligatory"; Examples?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 4:28

As a technical matter, he cannot have thought in the past that the Earth is round in the present (because that was in his future); he must have thought that it was round at the time. If you really wanted to refer to his belief then in the Earth's roundness now, the construction would be he thought it would be round, but this is rare in any sensible context. Luckily, the Earth still is round, so you can say either he thinks it is round, he thinks it was round or he thought it was round without offending logic, although the second would draw puzzled glances.

Not one in a hundred English speakers have analysed this, but in my circles the past tense is instinctively used; perhaps because it is in fact correct.

  • Did you mean, "although the first would draw puzzled... ("he thinks it was round") because the second, he thought it was round is in the OP's question and I wouldn't be puzzled by that statement.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 27, 2013 at 7:23
  • @Mari-Lou; The second example in that sentence is he thinks it was round which, though logically valid and almost certainly true, is peculiar phrasing. Commented Jul 27, 2013 at 12:29
  • Oh, I didn't see the first one, it's a bit lost in the field in MHO.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 27, 2013 at 12:43
  • Please explain how "he thinks it was round" is even logical?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 4:17
  • @Pacerier: In the same way that "he thinks Texas was American after it was part of Mexico" is grammatical (and may be correct) regardless both of whether Texas was American and whether it still is. Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 10:04

This would depend on if the thing you found out is still true or not. If it is still true, you would use the present tense:

"Last week, I found out that NASA stands for 'National Aeronautics and Space Administration.'"

But if earlier in the week they changed the name, you would use the past tense:

"Last week, I found out that NASA stood for 'National Aeronautics and Space Administration.' However, on Tuesday they changed it to the 'National Awesome Space Astronauts'."

  • 1
    But can't the second sentence also be used in the same context as the first? And isn't it often used this way? Commented Apr 27, 2020 at 16:52

After "I wish" follows past tense to express an irreal wish, ie a wish that can't come true. In written language: I wish father were** here. In colloquial language this were** is replaced by was*: I wish father was* here.

were** = genuine Past subjunctive Was* = Past indicative as substitute for subjunctive.

After I thought + clause we have something similar. - We thought you were the type for the job. A Past indicative in the clause makes no sense.Only as a Past with subjunctive function the sentence makes sense.

A lot of good examples would be necessary to show this in a convincing manner.

Here's a link to BNC with 50 examples for "I thought I was ...". I think there are examples among these that show that "I was" can't be understood as a normal Past indicative.


  • Yes, I also think that is what is happening. It goes against all logic otherwise. A post of mine on this: english.stackexchange.com/questions/565936/… Also, I've read your profile description -"A pity that Youtube has not discovered yet that videos are an ideal means for language learning"- and I am wondering if you know about Youglish: youglish.com It might not be what you meant, but it is quite great as it is.
    – Pablo GM
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 23:27

A thought about the logic here that has a valid grammatical implication. What something was in the past tells you nothing about what it is today. For example, if I tell you I saw my daughter yesterday, and I was very happy to see her, there is no implication at all that were she to stop by today that I'd be unhappy to see her.

So, when you say "He didn't know that New Jersey was actually in the East Coast" there is no implication in the sentence as to the location of New Jersey today. it tells you neither that it is on the east coast, nor if it has switched places with California.

  • This is correct, and that's because of this: It's about what he didn't know and not about the location of New Jersey. :)
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 19:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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