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Sequence of Tenses on GMAT Sentence Correction

First, some practice questions.

1) The spokeswoman for the national laboratory announced that, while the lab had been operating at a loss in the 1990s, it had become profitable in 2006, and would continue to yield high profits at least until 2025.

(A) had been operating at a loss in the 1990s, it had become profitable in 2006, and would continue

(B) had been operating at a loss in the 1990s, it became profitable in 2006, and would continue

(C) had been operating at a loss in the 1990s, it became profitable in 2006, continuing

(D) operated at a loss in the 1990s, it became profitable in 2006, and would continue

(E) operated at a loss in the 1990s, becoming profitable in 2006, and continuing

2) When the reporter asked about the status of the budget, the governor said that, at that very moment, his team is fashioning a compromise and will deliver it to the senate offices by later that afternoon.

(A) is fashioning a compromise and will deliver

(B) fashions a compromise and will deliver

(C) was fashioning a compromise and would deliver

(D) had been fashioning a compromise and would deliver

(E) has fashioned a compromise and will deliver

3) The people of the ancient Near East believed that the Earth’s dry land first appeared when the Creator has separated the “water above” from the “water below,” and that there is another ocean in the sky, above the firmament.

(A) appeared when the Creator has separated the “water above” from the “water below,” and that there is

(B) appeared as the Creator was separating the “water above” from the “water below,” and that there would be

(C) had appeared as the Creator has separated the “water above” from the “water below,” and that there is

(D) had appeared when the Creator had separated the “water above” from the “water below,” and that there was

(E) has appeared with the Creator having separated the “water above” from the “water below,” and that there was

Solutions will follow this article.


A review of tenses

Verbs have simple tenses (ordinary past, present, and future) as well as perfect tenses, progressive tenses, and even progressive perfect tenses.  Here’s a brief list of examples for the verb “to go” (an irregular verb), with both singular and plural forms.

Simple past: he went, they went

Simple present: she goes, they go

Simple future: he will go, they will go

Past perfect: she had gone, they had gone

Present perfect: he has gone, they have gone

Future perfect: she will have gone, they will have gone

Past progressive: he was going, they were going

Present progressive: she is going, they are going

Future progressive: he will be going, they will be going

Past perfect progressive: she had been going, they had been going

Present perfect progressive: he has been going, they have been going

Future perfect progressive: she will have been going, they will have been going

Obviously, those last three tenses are somewhat rare, but in the right context, they could show up on the GMAT.


Sequence of tenses

Suppose we have a sentence, a statement of fact, which has past & present & future in it.  For example,

P did X, does Y, and will do Z. 

Now, suppose that, whatever these facts are, they are important enough for someone else to announce them, or tell them, or think them, or believe them.  In fact, we might use any of the idioms of thinking and knowing or any of the [verb] + “that”-clause idioms here.

Someone else announced that P ____ X, _____Y, and _____ Z. 

This is called indirect speech.  The big question is: what tenses do we use when we change from a description of the events themselves to a spoken or thought “that”-clause in the past about the events?  In other words, what’s the right tense within indirect speech?  This subject is the sequence of tenses, and the rules are relatively simple.   What we sorta do is back everything up to a previous-time tense

a. the present tense real event becomes past: (does Y) becomes (did Y)

b. the past tense real event becomes past perfect: (did X) becomes (had done X)

c. the future tense real event — this is a tricky one.  You may thing future goes back to present or to future perfect, but neither of those are correct.  We actually use the subjunctive for a hypothetical future: (will do Z) becomes (would do Z).

d. anything progressive would stay progressive, following the above rules; for example, (was doing omega) becomes (had been doing omega)

Thus, our indirect speech sentence above would be

Someone else announced that P had done X, did Y, and would do Z. 



If you had any insights or realizations reading this, you may want to give the practice questions above a second look before reading the solutions.  If you have any further questions, please let us know in the comments section at the bottom.

1) The first verb, to operate, refers to a past event (in the 1990s), so that should be past perfect in indirect speech.  This is correct in (A)(C).  The second verb, to become profitable, is also in the past (2006), so this also should be past perfect in indirect speech: only (A) has this correct. The final event, to continue to yield, refers to the future, so this should be the hypothetical future, “would continue to yield“, which (A) & (B) & (D) have correct.  All three verbs should remain in parallel: it is not correct to change some to participles, as (C) & (E) do.

The only possible answer is (A).

2) The first verb, to fashion, was a present-time action for the governor, and because the governor emphasized “at [this] moment”, we know it must be in the progressive.  The governor would have said “is fashioning” when we spoke, so in indirect speech, this becomes “was fashioning”. Only (C) has this correct.

The second verb, to deliver, was a future-time action for the governor, and he would have said, “will deliver”.  In indirect speech, this becomes “would deliver”.  Both (C) & (D) have this correct.

The only possible answer is (C).

3) Here, we have an interesting variant on indirect speech, a “that”-clause about belief.  Both of the first two verbs, to appear and to separate, refer to actions that occurred at the Creation of the World, presumably a past event for anyone speaking about it. In indirect speech, these both should be in the past perfect, “had appeared” and “had separated“. Only (D) has both of these.

The last verb, a form of the verb to be, describes a current condition of the world (at least in this ancient worldview), so this would have been a present tense verb to anyone speaking about it, and in indirect speech, present becomes past, so this should be “there was“, which is correct in both (D) & (E).

Choice (A) has the past “appeared” with the present perfect “has separated” for two events that presumably were simultaneous.  Similarly, choice (C) also mismatches the tenses, using the past perfect “had appeared” with the present perfect “has separated.”  These cannot be correct.

Choice (B) inexplicably has the past progressive for the verb ‘was separating,” even though there is no reason to emphasis the continuous nature of this past action.   Similarly, the hypothetical “would be” is not consistent with the rest of the logic: these ancient people belief something that they thought was really the case, not something hypothetical and speculative.    The “would be” would be true in a contrary-to-fact conditional statement: “If what these ancient people believed were true, then there would be another ocean …” This cannot be correct.

Choice (E) makes the strange choice of using the present perfect for “has appeared,” but then makes a huge mistake.  The GMAT does not like the structure “with” + [noun] + [participial phrase], and this is what this choice has.  This choice is incorrect.

The only possible answer is (D).


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23 Responses to Sequence of Tenses on GMAT Sentence Correction

  1. Rinku November 6, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

    I am glad i bumped on to this blog…thank you, your blog is simply awesome and have no words to express it. It is not only to be referred but to be recommended 🙂

    • Dani Lichliter
      Dani Lichliter November 6, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

      Thanks so much, Rinku! I’m so glad to hear that it’s helpful for you! 🙂
      Best of luck with your studies!

  2. Vijay July 22, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    Hi Mike.

    First of all, thanks for your wonderful article. I have been following your articles for my gmat preparation.

    I have a doubt regarding the third question.

    The people of the ancient Near East believed that the Earth’s dry land first HAD appeared when ——— the firmament.

    Is it fine to put Had after first.?? I think the following sentence sounds better than the one above.

    Earth’s dry land HAD first appeared

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike McGarry July 24, 2015 at 10:18 am #

      Dear Vijay,
      I’m happy to respond. 🙂 Your question delves into territory a little beyond what the GMAT officially tests. You see, in very sophisticated, very formal writing, the rule-of-thumb is not to split up a verb. Obviously, the word “not” often comes between auxiliary verbs and the main verb, but if the position of an adverb is “optional,” then in better writing, we would choose not to interrupt the verb.
      I want to underscore: the GMAT will not test you on this. Nevertheless, it’s good to notice that correct answers on the GMAT SC tend to follow this rule-of-thumb.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

  3. Anitesh June 23, 2015 at 10:43 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    I have always admired your eye-opening blogs and prompt replies. Thank you for the effort and guidance. Need your help again. 🙂
    I doubt that following sentence is incorrect. Complete sentence is underlined.

    Q>The zoologists pointed out that hunters had nearly exterminated the northern elephant seal 100 years ago, but they also noted that the seal population has grown dramatically in recent years.

    A>The zoologists pointed out that hunters had nearly exterminated the northern elephant seal 100 years ago, but they also noted that the seal population has grown dramatically in recent years.

    B>There has been dramatic growth in recent years in the northern elephant seal population noted by the zoologists, although they also pointed out that hunters had nearly exterminated the seals 100 years ago.

    C>Although northern elephant seals had been, according to the zoologists, nearly exterminated 100 years ago, they also noted that the seal population has grown dramatically in recent years.

    D>Hunters had nearly exterminated the northern elephant seal 100 years ago according to the zoologists, but they also noted that there has been dramatic growth in the seal population in recent years.

    E>Added to noting that the elephant seal population has grown dramatically in recent years, the zoologists pointed out that they had been nearly exterminated by hunters 100 years ago.

    Provided OA is A.
    But I think the tense sequencing is not correct. In the second half the sentence says that ….they also “noted” that the seal population “has grown”….

    Please shed some light on this.

  4. Naveen Malhotra March 7, 2015 at 10:54 pm #

    Dear Mike,

    Thanks for the good work. Makes life a lot easier for people like myself.
    While I agree with your explanation to question 1, I think it doesn’t fit in this question! There are only two events of the speaker’s past being talked about, and hence the latter event should be in simple past. I feel option B would be a better choice here. Please let me know about your thoughts on this.


    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike March 9, 2015 at 11:43 am #

      Dear Naveen,
      My friend, it’s not simply about the time-relationship of the events with respect to each other, but also when the speaker is talking. In fact, this latter distinction is crucial. The speaker is clearly speaking in the past, so events in the speaker’s past need to be described with the past perfect. The time-relation of when the event happened to when the speaker spoke about it—that’s what matters for sequence of tenses.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

  5. Bradley November 10, 2014 at 7:06 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your good work.

    I am wondering if this sentence is indirect speech: The historian argued that Afghanistan was more a quagmire for the Soviet Union than Vietnam was for the United States.

    If so, should the sentence be The historian argued that Afghanistan had been more a quagmire for the Soviet Union than Vietnam had been for the United States?

    Thanks for the response.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike November 10, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

      I’m happy to respond. 🙂 Normally, we don’t answer questions about outside material, but this question brings up a few good points. First of all, yes, this is indirect speech, absolutely. Any cognitive or communicative verb plus a “that” clause — that’s indirect speech.
      Now, should the verb be in the past perfect? It depends. First of all, when was the historian speaking — was his argument contemporary with either of those historical events? We don’t know. Even more subtle — when was/is the Vietnam War a “quagmire” for the US? Did that end with the the fall of Saigon in 1975, or did it continue after? Is it still, in some sense, a “quagmire” in the way that it weighs on our memory and impacts US policy and foreign relations? These are very much unanswerable questions, but we certainly could imagine someone, say, our hypothetical professor, arguing cogently for either the affirmative or the negative. All of this makes it extremely unclear what verb tense we should use in the “that” clause. In the absence of having clear answers to all these unanswerable questions, there really is no single “right” answer to the question about verb tense.
      The GMAT will never give you something that leaves so many open questions. If the GMAT wants to test indirect speech, the time relationship of speaking and events spoken about will be exceedingly clear. This is what I tried to do in the practice questions above.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

  6. Lokesh September 1, 2014 at 7:17 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Please let me know if my understanding is fine. If two or more actions happened in the past, all of them cannot be in the past perfect form. I mean, the earlier action will be in carrying a “had” and the rest of them will have simple past. Or please help me if I am wrong.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike September 1, 2014 at 10:51 am #

      Dear Lokesh,
      I’m happy to respond. 🙂 What you say is not correct. You see, English doesn’t have an infinite number of past tenses, to accommodate, say, event A, which happened before event B, which happened before event C, which happened before event D, …. If we needed a new tense each time, for each one of those, we would simply run out of tenses.
      Fortunately, the requirements for indirect speech are much simpler. If the speaking is in the past, and the multiple events are in the speakers past, then they are all uniformly in the past perfect.
      Fred said that A had happened before B, which had happened before C, which had happened before he had arrived there.
      The rule about one past event happening before another simply doesn’t apply when we are using indirect speech to talk about events in the speaker’s past.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

  7. suraj November 3, 2013 at 1:10 am #

    Hi Mike,

    You have mentioned in Question#1 that all the verbs in a sentence need o be parallel.
    Is this a hard and fast rule ?
    In that case how come the verbs to operate’ and ‘to become profitable’ are in past perfect whereas “would continue to yield“ is in the hypotheitical future tense in the same sentence ??


  8. Piyush September 24, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    I’m sorry, but I’m still confused by your “correct” response choices for #2.

    I still picked “A” because I don’t see why his team can’t be fashioning he compromise as the speech is going on and that they will be delivering it later that afternoon. Why does it have to be one like sequence behind?

    By saying “was” and “would,” aren’t you claiming that the governer’s team was fashioning the compromise before the speech took place and that at some poi t they would be presenting it?

    Please explain without using your rule about shifting tenses backward. If that’s th best way to explain it, then maybe explain why the backward tense in indirect speeches works.

    Thanks for your help.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike September 25, 2013 at 10:22 am #

      Dear Piyush,
      The reporter’s asking and the governor’s responding are in the past. It doesn’t matter where in the past —- let’s say, for the sake of argument, that happened yesterday. Yesterday, the reporter asked, and the governor responded. At that yesterday time, the governor said, “Right now, my team is fashioning a compromise. They will deliver it to the senate this afternoon.” That’s direct speech, a direct quote. There is a HUGE difference between direct speech and indirect speech: direct speech simply reports, word for word, the exact words that came out of somebody’s mouth, but indirect speech reflects the time that has elapsed between those words and our description of them. The “fashioning” was in the governor’s present when he spoke it yesterday, and the “delivering” was in his future, but now, as we are describing yesterday’s events, all that is in the past. In our own descriptions, we can only use the present progressive for something that is present and in-progress while *we* are saying or writing it, and we can only use the simple future for something that is legitimately in *our* future. Anything I say or write has to reflect where I am located in time as I say it or write it. If I am talking about what the governor said yesterday about the events yesterday, I have to use other tenses for that — the rules for sequence of tenses. It doesn’t make sense to ascribe information about activity in our present to someone who was speaking in our past. Sequence of tenses is an accurate way to report someone’s past speech about their past & present & future — which, of course, is not wholly identical with our past & present & future.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • Neeti September 6, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

        Hi Mike, just for my understanding, in Q2, let’s suppose we have direct speech i.e. the question is: The governor said that, at that very moment, his team is fashioning a compromise and will deliver it to the senate offices by later that afternoon. The answer will be ‘A’ then, since it is a direct speech or the word ‘said’ still makes it indirect speech?

        Also, I am confused when its direct speech, are there no tense rules in direct speech? Past and future tense can be used together. Take an example:

        If you LIKED cycling, you WILL like biking. Is this sentence correct? Should there be ‘would’ in the second clause instead of ‘will’? or is it correct since it is direct speech and ‘would’ is only required in the indirect speech? Please help! Thank you.

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike September 6, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

          Dear Neeti,
          I’m happy to respond. 🙂 Direct speech means we use quotation marks around what is said, to indicate that it is the exact wording.
          The governor said, “They are working right now and will deliver it.”
          Whenever the quotation marks are absent and the word “that” is present, that’s indirect speech. We don’t “hear” the voice of the speaker directly: we are only told about it by someone else.
          The governor said that they were working right then and would deliver it.
          In direct speech, that’s the direct quote of the speaker — a speaker can talk about any events and any tenses she wants. In ordinary writing, not referring to what someone else said, but just expressing your own opinion, you can talk about any events and any tenses you want. The rules for indirect speech come when one person is telling us about what another person said, and is paraphrasing it, rather than quoting directly. It’s in this very narrow case, this highly specialized situation, that the rules of sequence of tenses apply, and in the vast majority of the cases, these rules are completely irrelevant.
          Does all this make sense?
          Mike 🙂

  9. HUSSAM August 21, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

    In the first question, choice (B) also has ‘to operate’ in past perfect. Am I wrong? I think it’s the correct answer.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike August 22, 2013 at 9:39 am #

      In (A) & (B) & (C), the verb “to operate” is indeed in the past perfect progressive, so that’s perfectly fine in those three cases. You will notice the difference between (A) & (B) is the verb “to become” —- 2006 is a past time, and presumably in the speakers past (this kind of business announcement sounds as if it was made recently). Since the action of “to become” was also in the speaker’s past, it also has to be in the past perfect. That’s why (B) is incorrect and (A) is correct.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • Subhayan July 20, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

        Hi Mike,

        Two actions happened in the past, both of them cannot be in the past perfect form. I think [B] is the correct option and not [A].

        Please let me know your thoughts


        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike July 21, 2014 at 9:50 am #

          Dear Subhayan,
          I’m happy to respond. 🙂 My friend, I believe you are thinking of ordinary tense rules for the ordinary use of the past perfect. That’s different from the use of the past perfect in the sequence of tenses. That’s one of the things that makes sequence of tenses so tricky. Does this make sense?
          Mike 🙂

  10. cumulonimbus June 23, 2013 at 8:27 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Can you please help with this question:

    Reporting that one of its many obstacles had been a citizens’ group seeking to preserve historic buildings, developers announced a revision of plans to tear down the city’s original post office in order to expand a luxury hotel’s parking lot.

    (A) its many obstacles had been
    (B) its many obstacles had turned out to be
    (C) its many obstacles is
    (D) their many obstacles had been
    (E) their many obstacles is

    past perfect (had been) is the only option here.
    As per my understanding, since the obstacles persist even now i.e. present the reporting tense should be past tense i.e.”one of their main obstacles were”..

    Is this correct?

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike June 24, 2013 at 9:33 am #

      Dear Cumulonimbus,
      One really tricky idea: the present participle (here, “reporting”) takes on the tense of the main verb of the sentence. Because “announced” is past, that means the “reporting” is also past.
      The “citizens’ group” group clearly was an obstacle when the plan was first announced. Did these citizens continue to pose an obstacle? Unclear. If the answer choices asked us to choose between “was” and “had been”, that would be highly problematic, because the sentence doesn’t give us enough information to decide. Because they give us only one choice, that (and the pronoun error) is enough to determine a unique OA. I’m not completely fond of the question — I think this crucial information could be made more clear.
      Mike 🙂

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