edited by Meagan Ayer et al.

Sequence of Tenses

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482. The tenses of the subjunctive in dependent clauses follow special rules for the Sequence of Tenses. With reference to these rules all tenses when used in independent clauses are divided into two classes—Primary and Secondary.

  1. PRIMARY: The Primary Tenses include all forms that express present or future time. These are the present, future, and future perfect indicative, the present and perfect subjunctive, and the Present and Future Imperative.
  2. SECONDARY: The Secondary Tenses include all forms that refer to past time. These are the imperfect, perfect, and pluperfect indicative, the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive, and the Historical Infinitive.

Note— To these may be added certain forms less commonly used in independent clauses:

  1. Primary: Present Infinitive in Exclamations.
  2. Secondary: Perfect Infinitive in Exclamations (see § 462, § 485.a, Note).

The Perfect Definite is sometimes treated as primary (see § 485.a). For the Historical Present, see § 485.e; for the Imperfect Subjunctive in Apodosis, see § 485.h.

483. The following is the general rule for the Sequence of Tenses.1

In complex sentences a primary tense in the main clause is followed by the present or perfect in the dependent clause, and a secondary tense by the imperfect or pluperfect.

PRIMARY TENSES

rogō
I ask, am asking

quid faciās
what you are doing

quid fēceris
what you did, were doing, have done,
have been doing

quid factūrus sīs
what you will do

rogābō
I shall ask
rogāvī [sometimes]
I have asked
rogāverō
I shall have asked
scrībit
he writes
ut nōs moneat
to warn us
scrībet
he will write
scrībe (scrībit)
write
ut nōs moneās
to warn us
scrībit
he writes
quasi oblītus sit
as if he had forgotten

SECONDARY TENSES

rogābam
I asked, was asking
quid facerēs
what you were doing

quid fēcissēs
what you had done, had been doing

quid factūrus essēs
what you would do

rogāvī
I asked, have asked
rogāveram
I had asked
scrīpsit
he wrote
ut nōs monēret
to warn us
scrīpsit
he wrote
quasi oblītus esset
as if he had forgotten

484. In applying the rule for the Sequence of Tenses, observe—

  1. Whether the main verb is (a) primary or (b) secondary.
  2. Whether the dependent verb is to denote completed action (i.e. past with reference to the main verb) or incomplete action (i.e. present or future with reference to the main verb).

a. If the leading verb is primary, the dependent verb must be in the present if it denotes incomplete action, in the perfect if it denotes completed action.

b. If the leading verb is secondary, the dependent verb must be in the imperfect if it denotes incomplete action, in the pluperfect if it denotes completed action.

  1. He writes [primary] to warn [incomplete action] us.
    Scrībit ut nōs moneat.

    I ask [primary] what you were doing [now past].
    Rogō quid fēceris.

  2. He wrote [secondary] to warn [incomplete] us.
    Scrīpsit ut nōs monēret.

    I asked [secondary] what you were doing. [incomplete]
    Rogāvī quid facerēs

c. Notice that the future perfect denotes action completed (at the time referred to), and hence is represented in the subjunctive by the perfect or pluperfect.

He shows that if they come (shall have come), many will perish.
Dēmōnstrat, sī vēnerint, multōs interitūrōs.

He showed that if they should come (should have come), many would perish.
Dēmōnstrāvit, sī vēnissent, multōs interitūrōs.

485. In the Sequence of Tenses the following special points are to be noted.

a. The perfect indicative is ordinarily a secondary tense, but allows the primary sequence when the present time is clearly in the writer's mind.

Ut satis esset praesidī prōvīsum est. (Cat. 2.26)
Provision has been made that there should be ample guard.
[secondary sequence]

Addūxī hominem in quō satisfacere exterīs nātiōnibus possētis. (Verr. 1.2)
I have brought a man in whose person you can make satisfaction to foreign nations.
[secondary sequence]

Est enim rēs iam in eum locum adducta, ut quamquam multum intersit inter eōrum causās quī dīmicant, tamen inter victōriās nōn multum interfutūrum putem. (Fam. 5.21.3)
For affairs have been brought to such a pass that, though there is a great difference between the causes of those who are fighting, still I do not think there will be much difference between their victories.
[primary sequence]

Ea adhibita doctrīna est quae vel vitiōsissimam nātūram excolere possit. (Q. Fr. 1.1.7)
Such instruction has been given as can train even the faultiest nature.
[primary sequence]

Note— The perfect infinitive in exclamations follows the same rule.

Quemquamne fuisse tam scelerātum quī hōc fingeret. (Phil. 14.14)
Was any one so abandoned as to imagine this?
[secondary]

Adeōn rem redīsse patrem ut extimēscam (Ter. Ph. 153)
To think that things have come to such a pass that I should dread my father!
[primary]

b. After a primary tense the Perfect Subjunctive is regularly used to denote any past action. Thus the Perfect Subjunctive may represent:

  1. A Perfect Definite.

    Nōn dubitō quīn omnēs tuī scrīpserint.(Fam. 5.8)
    I do not doubt that all your friends have written.
    [direct statement: scrīpsērunt]

    Quā rē nōn īgnōrō quid accidat in ultimīs terrīs, cum audierimin Ītaliā querellās cīvium. (Q. Fr. 1.1.33)
    Therefore I know well what happens at the ends of the earth, when I have heard in Italy the complaints of citizens.
    [direct statement: audīvī]

  2. An Historical Perfect.

    Mē autem hīc laudat quod rettulerim, nōn quod patefēcerim. (Att. 12.21)
    Me he praises because I brought the matter [before the senate], not because I brought it to light.
    [direct statement: rettulit]

  3. An Imperfect.

    sī forte cecidērunt, tum intellegitur quam fuerint inopēs amīcōrum. (Lael. 53)
    If by chance they fall, (have fallen) then one can see how poor they were in friends.
    [direct question: quam inopēs erant?]

    Quī status rērum fuerit cum hās litterās dedī, scīre poteris ex C. Titiō Strabōne. (Fam. 12.6)
    What the condition of affairs was when I wrote this letter, you can learn from Strabo.
    [direct question: quī status erat?]

    Quam cīvitātī cārus fuerit maerōre fūneris indicātum est. (Lael. 11)
    How dear he was to the state has been shown by the grief at his funeral.
    [direct question: quam cārus erat?]

    Ex epistulīs intellegī licet quam frequēns fueritPlatōnis audītor. (Or. 15)
    It may be understood from his letters how constant a hearer he was of Plato.
    [direct question: quam frequēns erat?]

    Note— Thus the perfect subjunctive may represent, not only a Perfect Definite or an Historical Perfect of a direct statement or question, but an imperfect as well. This comes from the want of any special tense of the subjunctive for continued past action after a primary tense. Thus, mīror quid fēcerit may mean (1) I wonder what he has done, (2) I wonder what he did (hist. perf.), or (3) I wonder what he was doing.

c. In clauses of Result, the Perfect Subjunctive is regularly (the Present rarely) used after secondary tenses.

Hortēnsius ārdēbat dīcendī cupiditāte sīc ut in nūllō umquam flagrantius studium vīderim. (Brut. 302)
Hortensius was so hot with desire of speaking that I have never seen a more burning ardor in any man.

[Siciliam Verrēs] per triennium ita vexāvit ac perdidit ut ea restituī in antīquum statum nūllō modō possit. (Verr. 1.12)
For three years Verres so racked and ruined Sicily that she can in no way be restored to her former state.
[Here the present describes a state of things actually existing.]

Videor esse cōnsecūtus ut nōn possit Dolābella in Ītaliam pervenīre. (Fam. 12.14.2)
I seem to have brought it about that Dolabella cannot come into Italy.

Note 1— This construction emphasizes the result; the regular sequence of tenses would subordinate it.

Note 2— There is a special fondness for the perfect subjunctive to represent a perfect indicative.

Thorius erat ita nōn superstitiōsus ut illa plūrima in suā et sacrificia et fāna contemneret; ita nōn timidus ad mortem ut in aciē sit ob rem pūblicam interfectus (Fin. 2.63)
Thorius was so little superstitious that he despised [contemnēbat] the many sacrifices and shrines in his country; so little timorous about death that he was killed [interfectus est] in battle, in defence of the state.

d. A general truth after a past tense follows the sequence of tenses.

Ex hīs quae tribuisset, sibi quam mūtābilis esset reputābat. (Q. C. 3.8.20)
from what she (Fortune) had bestowed on him, he reflected how inconstant she is.
[direct: mūtābilis est]

Ibi quantam vim ad stimulandōs animōs īra habēret appāruit. (Liv. 33.37)
Here it appeared what power anger has to goad the mind.
[direct: habet]

Note— In English the original tense is more commonly kept.

e. The Historical Present (§ 469) is sometimes felt as a primary, sometimes as a secondary tense, and accordingly it takes either the primary or the secondary sequence.

Rogat ut cūret quod dīxisset. (Quinct. 18)
He asks him to attend to the thing he had spoken of.
[Both primary and secondary sequence.]

Note— After the historical present, the subjunctive with cum temporal must follow the secondary sequence.

Quō cum vēnisset cōgnōscit. (B. C. 1.34)
When he had come there he learns.

Cum esset pūgnātum hōrīs quīnque, nostrīque gravius premerentur impetum in cohortīs faciunt. (id. 1.46)
When they had fought for five hours, and our men were pretty hard pressed, they make an attack on the cohorts.

f. The historical infinitive regularly takes the secondary sequence.

Interim cotīdiē Caesar Haeduōs frūmentum, quod essent pollicitī flāgitāre. (B. G. 1.16)
Meanwhile Cæsar demanded of the Hœdui every day the grain which they had promised.

g. The imperfect and pluperfect in conditions contrary to fact (§ 517) and in the Deliberative Subjunctive (§ 444) are not affected by the sequence of tenses.

quia tāle sit, ut vel sī īgnōrārent id hominēs vel sī obmutuissent (Fin. 2.49)
because it is such that even if men WERE ignorant of it, or HAD BEEN silent about it

Quaerō ā tē cūr C. Cornēlium nōn dēfenderem? (Vat. 5)
I ask you why I was not to defend Caius Cornelius?
[direct: cūr nōn dēfenderem?]

h. The imperfect subjunctive in present conditions contrary to fact (§ 517) is regularly followed by the secondary sequence.

Sī aliī cōnsulēs essent, ad tē potissimum, Paule, mitterem, ut eōs mihi quam amīcissimōs redderēs. (Fam. 15.13.3)
If there were other consuls, I should send to you, Paulus, in preference to all, that you might make them as friendly to me as possible.

Sī sōlōs eōs dīcerēs miserōs quibus moriendum esset, nēminem exciperēs. (Tusc. 1.9)
If you were to call only those who must die wretched, you would except no one.

i. The present is sometimes followed by a secondary sequence, seemingly because the writer is thinking of past time.

Sed sī rēs cōget, est quiddam tertium, quod neque Seliciō nec mihi displicē bat: ut neque iacēre rem paterēmur, etc. (Fam. 1.5 A.3)
But if the case shall demand, there is a third [course] which neither Selicius nor myself disapproved, that we should not allow, etc.
[Here Cicero is led by the time of displicēbat]

Sed tamen ut scīrēs, haec tibi scrībō. (Fam. 13.47)
But yet that you may know, I write thus.
[As if he had used the epistolary imperfect scrībēbam (§ 479)]

Cûius praeceptī tanta vīs est ut ea nōn hominī cuipiam sed Delphicō deō tribuerētur. (Legg. 1.58)
Such is the force of this precept, that it was ascribed not to any man, but to the Delphic god.
[The precept was an old one.]

j. When a clause depends upon one already dependent, its sequence may be secondary if the verb of that clause expresses past time, even if the main verb is in a primary tense.

Sed tamen quā rē acciderit ut ex meīs superiōribus litterīs id suspicārēre nesciō. (Fam. 2.16)
But yet how it happened that you suspected this from my previous letter, I don't know.

Prōfēcisse vidēmur ut ā Graecīs nē verbōrum quidem cōpiā vincerēmur. (N. D. 1.8)
We seem to have advanced so far that even in abundance of words we ARE not surpassed by the Greeks.

Note— So regularly after a perfect infinitive which depends on a primary tense (§ 585.a).

Footnotes

1. The term is sometimes extended to certain relations between the tenses of subordinate verbs in the indicative and those of the main verb. These relations do not differ in principle from those which we are considering; but for convenience the term Sequence of Tenses is in this book restricted to subjunctives, in accordance with the usual practice.