past simple timeless rules

When we write a rule in a past tense narrative, should it still be in the present simple tense? This was an excellent question raised by a reader, from a fairly unexpected source – this Christmas reading exercise. It contains the phrase “everyone knew how magical Santa was”. The issue is that saying “was” in the past tense suggests Santa is either no longer magical (or perhaps has died?!). So, how can past simple still be correct here? Like much in English, it depends on our context.

When to use the past tense for timeless rules

When a text is framed in the past tense, all the information can be reported in the past. Whether the rule, or a certain fact, is still true now, or is always true, the context of a past tense narrative can make the past simple more appropriate than the present simple. In this case, it’s not that the text suggests Santa is no longer magical, but that at the time of the story it was true. It’s common practice in a past narrative to put present simple rules into the past in this way to avoid mixing tenses – and to correctly frame the information. This is because although the rule or fact might be timeless, it is being reported at a certain time.

This could apply to rules like “water boils at 100 degrees” – if we said “everyone understood that water boiled at 100 degrees” we’re not necessarily suggesting the rule no longer applies, but just that this rule was understood that way at that time. If we expand on the example, “Everyone in the auditorium understood that water boiled at 100 degrees”, it may clearer – because this rule was understood by this specific group of people, in this specific place, therefore it was true at that time, and to them. The context frames it.

This works a bit like reported speech – we say “I like cats.” but report “He said he liked cats.” – it doesn’t necessarily mean he no longer likes cats, it’s just framed grammatically as a past account.

Would it be incorrect to use the present simple for past rules?

“Everyone knew how magical Santa is” sounds awkward because we’re mixing tenses. It raises the question: how could people in the past know something now? In this case, no, the past simple works better. However, “everyone understood that water boils at 100 degrees” is more flexible. This is a timeless rule that isn’t related to a specific person or changeable event (such as the magical nature of Santa, which could, at some point, differ). With a truly timeless rule like this, we can use the present simple in the past in such a way. How you choose, then, may depend on where your emphasis lies, and the context of when you say it. If the timeless nature of the rule is relevant to us now, for example, the present simple will be more appropriate. On the other hand, if the understanding of such a rule in the past (for example) is more important, then the past simple is better.

Consider these two examples:

  • My parents told me that smoking causes cancer, that’s why I’ve never smoked. (from then until now, an ongoing state)
  • In the latter half of the 20th Century, more legislation came into effect as people better understood that smoking caused cancer. (a historical narrative makes it more relevant in the past)

I hope this helps clarify a rather nuanced bit of grammar. If you have any questions, do let me know! Want to learn more about the finer details of the English tenses? Try my book, The English Tenses Practical Grammar Guide.


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