| The rules governing sequence of tenses are important at the William Allen White School of Journalism for the same reason that other fine points of grammar and usage are: They set us apart from other journalism programs and make our graduates special. Those who operate the nation's most prestigious publications and broadcast outlets expect their news employees to follow the principles involved when it is best to do so. (Note: If you want to skip the grammatical explanation and head right to the “quick and simple” explanation, click here. But, beware. The grammatical explanation might be important at some point, and it's always easier to get something correct if you understand the “why.” )
What is the sequence of tenses rule?
In reporting (which involves most writing for newspapers, magazines and, to a lesser degree, broadcasting), there is no such thing as the present. Unless you're doing a live broadcast (or, perhaps, twittering, though even that will be done immediately after it happens or addresses something that will happen), everything we report either has happened or will happen. The source talks to a reporter in the present, but by the time the reader or listener becomes aware of the conversation, it is an event in the past. When we use something that's called reported speech; we must alter the tenses used by the speaker both to be grammatically correct and to make clear a source's use of different periods of time.
The term sequence of tenses refers to the systematic way in which we alter the speaker's verb tenses to make clear that all events, past or future, are not simultaneous. These are important distinctions to make.
The basic rule governing sequence of tenses is this: When the attribution tag (the source of the information, as in “Police said...”) is in the past tense, all other verbs in the sentence must be in the past tense. You were taught and have used sequence of tenses your entire life. It is a basic principle of good writing. You use (and write) it today without even thinking about it. Now, you must think about it.
It becomes a bit of a problem in journalism because of the need to use attribution so often. Because everything we report — either by writing or word of mouth — is in the past (unless you’re broadcasting live, such as “Monday Night Football”), attribution should be in the past tense.
Example: The car is rusting because of the humidity, he said. The car “is” rusting, at this time, but he “said” what he said at the time he said it to you, which is in the past. No problem here. The problem comes when “said” is moved to the beginning of the sentence.
Then the sentence would have to read: He said the car was rusting because of the humidity.
Simple enough, right? Well, trudge on (and it's recommended that you review the sections indicated at the end of this page in the order presented).
Before you trudge on, a thought on the “sequence of tenses” rule:
For a variety of reasons, chiefly because of television and its use of the present tense, the proper use of sequence of tenses is slowly disappearing. And that’s OK — with a big “but.”
But you should know the concept and how to apply it for several important reasons:
1. Some of the best publications, including The New York Times and The New Yorker, and broadcast outlets use it and expect people who work for them to know and to use it, when appropriate. Many of our students have been successful, in no insignificant part, because media outlets know we demand strong word skills, which includes a clear understanding of the sequence of tenses rule.
2. If you know it, you can make better decisions on when not to apply the sequence of tenses rule.
If you understand the concept and make correct decisions on its use, you will be more successful in your work — which means you’ll earn more money!
And, of course, the most important reason (at least for the moment) for learning it and using it: It’s required in this class!
OK, a quick and simple review:
When the attribution, such as said, which is in past tense, is at the beginning of a sentence (and it doesn't immediately introduce a direct quote), the rest of the sentence must be reflect the past tense, too.
The source says: “The weather is awful.”
We then would write: He said the weather was awful.
It's that simple.