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

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(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. 

 

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Summary

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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