What is the right choice here, take off or took off?

The float-planes were in fashion that time. Like many others, the Wright factory was really trying to make and sell machines that take off/took off from water as can be seen in an interview given by the superintendent of the company, in 1913.

("Machines that take off/took off from water" is used as a synonym for float-planes)

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    I would say for history: [...] were trying to make and sell machines that took off from the water.
    – Lambie
    Jan 20, 2017 at 22:01
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    Also, from you answer, I understand that it should be "from the water" not "from water" as I wrote. Am I correct? Jan 20, 2017 at 22:31
  • Either "from water" or "from the water" is correct, as is both "take off" and "took off". "Take off" is legitimate because if they were able then, they're still able now.
    – MMacD
    Jan 21, 2017 at 11:44

2 Answers 2


Either sentence is valid. This is a difference between class attributes and instance attributes.

The class is planes and when we add the class attribute they become

... planes that take off from the water.

The condition of taking off from the water is immutable. It is true of planes that took off, take off, and will take off from the water. It is a class of aircraft that does not distinguish past, present, or future. We could say

... planes that took off from the water.

and it would refer to the historical fact of those planes taking off in the early 20th century. It would be a valid sentence, but no more valid than the one referring to the capability of taking off from the water, not an instance of doing so.

Try another noun and verb:

The Phoenicians made boats that float.

The quality of flotation is as true now as it was then. To belong to the class boat an object sort of, well, has to float, else it's at best merely a boat-shaped object. If you say

The Phoenicians made boats that floated.

it would seem to limit the class of boats that float to instances of the class that only floated during the time of the Phoenicians. Perhaps such boats would not float now, or perhaps the person making the statement referred only to specific historical instances of flotation. Either of those is valid, and the latter sentence is valid, but not exclusively valid.

So the answer depends on where you want to place the emphasis. Do you want to refer to class attributes or instance attributes? Again, either is valid. It's just a matter of emphasis.


I think either could be acceptable, but I'd choose "took off", because the situation is from the past.

It might also sound more natural to say

They built planes that can take off from the water (present tense can)


They built planes that could take off from the water (past tense could)

  • I disagree with the present tense in this sentence due to its really being past tense and over.
    – Lambie
    Jan 20, 2017 at 22:01
  • Yeah I agree. I think though, that if I came across that use of the present tense, I wouldn't even notice. It's clear from the rest of the sentence that it's a past event Jan 20, 2017 at 22:05

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