Episode 268: March 24, 2011
How to Use Different Verb Tenses in One Sentence
Back in September, we talked about switching verb tenses. It was too big a topic to cover in one episode, so we just talked about one aspect. Now, a listener named Steve has written in with a question that has us asking once again, “How do you get different verb tenses in one sentence to play nicely together?”
Steve’s question was triggered by this sentence:
It’s been a long time since the song has percolated through the air after the puck slips into the net.
Is the verb “slip” in the correct tense, given that I’m using “has percolated” earlier in the sentence? I’m not sure if it should be “slips” or “slipped.”
Clauses and Verb Tenses
Steve’s sentence is tricky because it has three clauses with verb tenses that need to work together. We’ll break down the problem by comparing verb tenses in just one independent and one dependent clause at a time, instead of trying to decide for all three at once. (We talked about independent and dependent clauses in episode 136.)
The clauses that make up Steve’s sentence are like nested Russian dolls.
(It’s been a long time since [the song has percolated through the air after (the puck slips into the net)]).
The smallest clause is at the end: “the puck slips into the net.” By itself, it is an independent clause; but in this sentence, it follows the word “after,” which makes it a dependent clause.
Independent and Dependent Clauses
Now let’s consider a bigger chunk of the sentence--one nested Russian doll out, if you will: “The song percolated through the air after the puck slips into the net.” Our dependent clause “after the puck slips into the net” is nested inside the independent clause that starts, “the song has percolated through the air.” Like the smaller clause, this bigger clause follows a subordinating conjunction—“since”—to become another dependent clause.
Finally, this dependent clause is embedded in the biggest clause, which starts with “It’s been a long time since,” and we have the whole sentence: “It’s been a long time since the song percolated through the air after the puck slips into the net."
Although Steve was asking about the smallest clause (about the puck), the trouble actually lies in the middle clause (about the song) because it’s the target of conflicting demands.
What Is Present Perfect Tense?
Let’s start with the clause that begins, “It’s been a long time since.” Usually, the "long time since" construction will have the present perfect tense in the "since" clause. The present perfect tense is the one that uses an auxiliary verb such as “have” or “has” followed by the past participle of the main verb. For example, you might say, "a long time since we have spoken,” or “a long time since I've seen her.” It's possible to have a simple past tense in the "since" clause, but this usually happens when the event is something that is not going to happen again; for example, "a long time since he died."
So at this point, the present perfect tense is the better choice for the middle clause, and in fact, that’s what Steve used: “It’s been a long time since the song HAS percolated through the air...”
What’s Wrong with This Sentence?
Now let’s look at the dependent “after” clause: “after the puck slips into the net.” The original sentence used the present tense. Let’s see what happens when we put it with its independent-clause partner:
The song has percolated through the air after the puck slips into the net.
Hmm. Not good. The song should percolate after the puck does its slipping, but the tenses make it sound as if the song is percolating before the puck does its slipping. So let’s see what happens if we use the past tense for the “after” clause:
The song has percolated through the air after the puck slipped into the net.
Still not good. The problem has to do with the meaning of the present perfect tense.
How to Use Present Perfect Tense Correctly
When you use the present perfect tense you have to be talking about a period of time that you still consider to be going on. For example, if it’s still morning, you can say, “I’ve shaved this morning.” But if it’s afternoon or evening, all of a sudden “I’ve shaved this morning” sounds really weird. So if you say “after the puck slipped into the net,” it sounds as if you’re talking about an event that’s over. But when you couple that with “the song has percolated through the air,” in the present perfect tense, it sounds as if you’re talking about an interval of time that you’re still in.
One good solution is to take the clause about the song percolating, get rid of the present perfect tense, and put it in a simple past tense to match the tense in the clause about the puck: “The song percolatED after the puck slippED.” Now the clauses about the song and the puck work well together. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect solution, because the "It's been a long time" clause doesn't get to have its preferred present perfect tense in its "since" clause. But that's just a preference, not a requirement, so this solution will work:
It’s been a long time since the song percolated through the air after the puck slipped into the net.
For another solution, we could put all three clauses in the present perfect tense:
It’s been a long time since the song has percolated through the air after the puck has slipped into the net.
The first option seems better, but either one is grammatically and logically correct. The next time you’re faced with a tricky tense problem, try taking one pair of clauses at a time to see where the conflict lies.
This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at Literal Minded, and it was edited and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.