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I read the paragraph below and I am not sure why we have "were" instead of "are", when the writer is talking about children "nowadays".

Is it because he is talking hypothetically about the future? Can somebody help me out?

With those children, he thought, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy. Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the party.

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    "Children nowadays are horrible" means they are horrible now. "Children nowadays were horrible" means they were horrible in the past. The context is about past. – Raj 33 Jan 13 '18 at 13:24
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    It's really strange as we know that "nowadays" refers to the present time. I've looked up its meaning in all dictionaries but none refers to the past time. – Mido Mido Jan 13 '18 at 13:32
  • "nowadays" refers to the present time. But in the example, "children nowadays" is like a compound noun. (I don't know how to explain this). The whole context/ your paragraph is in past. – Raj 33 Jan 13 '18 at 14:33
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This is effectively all reported speech, so the verbs are backshifted, and nowadays refers to the "nowadays" when he was thinking it.

(It is not relevant that nowadays covers a longer period than the moment, as Virolino suggests: he could be thinking about something this very moment, and it would equally be backshifted to the time he was thinking it).

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"Nowadays" is not used to refer to the time moment "now" (and not even a second in the past). It has the meaning of a (longer) period of time, similar to "today", "this year"...

The following examples are correct:

  • What did you do at school today?
  • We already had a winter this year!

Regarding your example, two things must be noticed:

  1. The set of the story is in the past: "he thought", "would be watching", "was worst", "was that by means...", "were ... turned", "produced".

  2. Nowadays (as explained) is a period of time, not a moment.

Therefore (combining the two observations), it only makes sense to use "children nowadays were" in the respective context.

Out of this context, the same sequence of words might be less appropriate, or even downright incorrect.

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This odd situation can show up whenever there is an extended description of events of the past. It's normal for a story to be told entirely in past tense, as it sounds like the example paragraph is. If that text uses a word like "nowadays" (or even just "now") that normally refers to the present tense, we read it as referring to the time of the events being described.

I believe this is what Colin Fine meant by "backshifted". (It's not reported speech, though lot of it is reported thinking). Regardless this kind of construction can appear in any story that took place in the past.

This specific paragraph is even more confusing because of the second sentence which refers to a hypothetical future time.

To break it down a bit:

"he thought" - the thinking took place in the past, from the perspective of the narrator. Like most of the verbs in a normal story like this, it's in the past tense because all the action is assumed to have happened already. (*aside below)

"they would be watching" - this watching would take place a year or two after the thinking. That is, Winston is imagining into the future. That future may or may not be the narrator or reader's future. For this example it doesn't matter. It's "they would be" instead of "they will be" only because it's subjunctive - what might happen.

"children nowadays were horrible" - this "nowadays" refers to Winston's "now". That is, the time of the events that are being described in the surrounding text. It means that children were horrible in the days the story takes place.

(as an aside, this situation is even more confusing to talk about because the author wrote it 1949 about events that were to take place in his future (1984), which is now in our past! It's perhaps odd that even fiction set in the future is usually written in past tense. Written "properly", it should all be in the future tense such as "Children will be horrible in 1984.". The book should begin "It will be a bright cold day in April..." but no one writes that way.)

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