Feeling tense: sequence of tenses

Here's an obscure bit of usage that has me in two minds; it's from a newspaper report on military spending.

Admiral Lord Boyce said the Prime Minister should recognise the armed forces were over-committed and he should ensure they were properly resourced.

JD points out that the verbs have (had?) to be in the past tense to agree with the "said". Nonetheless the use of "were" rather than "are" seems to put the problem in the past, rather than the present and indeed the future.

Would I have substituted "are"? I'm not sure. I do feel it would make more sense, but rules, after all, is rules, in grammar as in everything else.

Comments, anyone?


Anonymous said...

What Boyce said was in the past. What he discussed is in the present.

Let's say I call you at home at 6 a.m. (yawn) to talk about lunch plans. Would I say, "Bobby said he went out for lunch yesterday, brought his own today, but has gone with us tomorrow"?


Dan said...

Neither the past tense nor the present tense paraphrase is WTF for me... I don't think there's anything ungrammatical about a sentence like "He said 'recognise' is a crazy British spelling."

One of the companies I work for requires us to make the same change JD did, so obviously he's not alone on this, but I agree with you that "were" seems to put the problem in the past. At the very least, it opens up an alternative interpretation of the sentence when our general goal as editors should be to limit the paths available to the reader.

JD (The Engine Room) said...

Checked in Fowler's, which differentiates between 'normal' and 'vivid' sequence of tenses. Eg:

"He said 'recognise' was a crazy British spelling" (normal)

"He said 'recognise' is a crazy British spelling" (vivid)

Fowler's adds: [The vivid usage] "is though common and often preferable, abnormal."

I suppose I am a stickler for 'normal' as opposed to 'vivid' simply because I spent so much time teaching the sequence of tenses to foreign language-learners. You need to know the rules before you can break them, so to speak...

JD (The Engine Room) said...

Incidentally, 'Feeling tense' currently holds the record for the post title used the most times by Apus...

I've expanded the title of this post to differentiate it from the other two posts called 'Feeling tense'.

Anonymous said...

he should ensure they were properly resourced.

the heck w/ "said"

How does he *now* "ensure" that they *were* properly resourced?

(and let's the beg question of whether "resourced" is a transitive verb, for the moment)

When was he going to do this ensuring? Now? Then "were" should be "are."

Was he supposed to have already done this ensuring long ago? Then "should ensure" should become "should have ensured they were."

As it is now, I'm really confused.

"said" doesn't affect the interior of the material. The facts do, though, and I don't know quite what's being said.