Yet another grammar question -- verb agreement


Someone tells you their son graduated basic Marine training a couple of months ago.

You respond,

“I didn’t know he was a marine.”

Now, this is grammatically correct, and sounds better (to me) than the more logical:

“I didn’t know he is a marine.”

However, presumably, unless the person’s son has been very quickly booted out, he is still a marine. Yet the natural thing in English seems to be to use the past tense of “to be”, apparently to agree with “I didn’t…” but thereby incorrectly implying that he is no longer a marine.

I’ve always found this awkward. Can anyone explain why this is the preferred way to do things?

I don’t see “I didn’t know he is a marine” to be awkward at all. And even if you substitute another branch of the military that doesn’t utilize a slogan of the “once a _____ always a ______” variety, it still sounds fine.

There’s your problem. Your are incorrectly inferring that this is implied. :wink:

Seriously, the phrasing does not point to that. How about “I didn’t know he was a high school graduate?” Does that mean that now, in the present, he’s somehow ungraduated?

The use of the past tense is technically accurate, in that at the moment of speaking the speaker does know, having just been told. It could be said “I didn’t know before just now that he was a marine.”

Now, if the speaker said “I didn’t know that he used to be a marine,” that would imply that he is no longer a marine. And yes, in some cases “used to be” will be interchangeable with “was” – but not in all cases. The occasional interchangeability does not warrant assuming that it is always thus.

I only chose the “marine” thing because it’s the first example that came to mind…it could have been describing any event in the past. Don’t get hung up on the particular example.

How about,

“My friend Jean Michel Dupont just returned to Paris.”
-“Oh…I didn’t know he was French.”

Even though it’s obvious that he hasn’t suddenly ceased being French, we still use “was”. To me, “is” sounds stilted, odd or even ungrammatical in that sentence:

-“Oh…I didn’t know he is French.”

It seems to clang with “didn’t”.

Which is perfectly fine, because the speaker is subconsciously referring to some (possibly indeterminate) time in the past when he knew (or was aware of) Jean but didn’t know – at that time – that Jean was French.

You seem to be hung on “was = used to be but is no more.” That’s reading something into it that is not there, or least not always there and cannot safely be assumed to be there. “Was” does NOT consistently/reliably mean “isn’t now.”

“I didn’t go to work yesterday because I was sick. I still am sick, so I won’t go into today either.” Perfectly grammatical, perfectly sensible. If I just say “I didn’t go to work yesterday because I was sick” and leave it at that, it does NOT tell you one way or the other whether I am still sick. One cannot reasonably infer that I am not sick now. I may or may not be sick now, but the use of “was” does NOT tell you.

That sentence is not grammatically correct, although it may be politically correct. :slight_smile:

It’s called agreement of tenses – a past normally governs a past, a present governs a present (and similarly where the action would be cast as past or future – what would be simple future becomes conditional when governed by a past tense verb, what would be past becomes past perfect.)

He says that he owns a car -> He said that he owned a car,
He says that he once owned a Mustang -> He said that he had once owned a Mustang.
He saus that he will buy a Hummer -> He said that he would buy a hummer.

Polycarp, please elaborate. I’m not certain what you are saying. In each set of sentences above, I find two different meanings and so both would be grammatically correct. But I can also find a use for these:

He says that he owned a car. He said that he owns a car.
He says that he had once owned a Mustang.
He says that he would buy a hummer under certain circumstances.
He said that he will buy a hummer.

Tenses must reflect reality. All of these sentences mean something different. You must use the one which accurately reflects reality.

You wouldn’t say to someone, “I didn’t know that you were her mother!” Unless the child has been put up for adoption, she still is.

Correct: “I didn’t know that you are her mother!”

Tense agreement is something else:

Polycarp brings a sweet potato to the shore every day at noon to be washed. He takes it to the edge of the water and rinses it in the salt water. Sometimes his friends gather to watch or they bring sweet potatoes too. Then they sit back and enjoy eating their sweet potatoes in the noon-day sun.

The present tense is used consistently throughout the narrative. The past tense could have been used or even another tense. Consistence is the important factor.

No friends were intended harm in the writing of this narrative.

Ta hell with that. Break free of your prescriptivist bonds!