original sentence (1999 China's post-grad entrance exam):

People looking back 5 or 10 years from now may well wonder why so few companies took the online plunge.


And how should I rewrite the sentence that means the other way?

3 Answers 3


English often changes verb tense and focus depending on the imagined point of view. In this case it is of the future person, looking back at a particular point in time. The original sentence is saying that, 5 to 10 years from now, people will look back at this moment and wonder why something was true.

Another example:

Although you think your life is hard, twenty years from now you will look back and remember how happy you were.

Notice the sentence uses the past tense "how happy you were" even though the person is currently experiencing that happiness. This is because the speaker imagines the perspective of the person, twenty years in the future, looking back at a past event.

If instead you want to say a future person looking back on events even further in the past than the current moment, the language is not much different. However you usually have to provide some kind of context to explain the relationship of the different time frames:

Scholars 10 years from now may look back at the events that led up to this moment, and wonder how we ever let things get so bad.


What a great question!

Strictly as it's written, your example sentence is ambiguous and it could be interpreted in either way. The verb tenses can be relative to either point in time.

However, it's commonly used to refer to people looking back on the present from the future. In that sense, it's taken on a cultural meaning that doesn't allow for misinterpretation without conscious analysis.

To refer to the present looking back on the past, a possible rephrasing is:

People looking back on the past 5 or 10 years may well wonder why so few companies took the online plunge.

To more explicitly refer to the future, you could say:

People 5 or 10 years from now may well look back and wonder why so few companies took the online plunge.


looking back five or ten years from now...[looking upon the present from a point 5 or 10 years in the future]

looking back from now five or ten years... [looking from the present at what happened 5 or 10 years ago]

Most native speakers would gravitate towards the meaning in brackets as the most likely one, unless there were some contextual reason not to do so.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .