1. The kids were told that 2 to the power of 3 is 8.
  2. The kids were told that President Joe Biden would visit their school.

Both sentences use the same past tense in main clauses, but use different tenses in that- clauses.

Why does sentence #1 use simple present tense, yet sentence#2 uses a past tense (past future tense)?

  • Because it is "Universal Truth". Another example is of Universal Truth is "The teacher taught the students that the sun rises in the East." May 4, 2021 at 12:53
  • @Man_From_India, Another question" How can I judge whether a sentence tells "Universal Truth"? What is " Universal Truth"? Please make it specific, thanks.
    – user421993
    May 4, 2021 at 13:01
  • It is written as "general truth" instead of the term I used. bbc.co.uk/learningenglish/course/upper-intermediate/unit-2/tab/… May 4, 2021 at 13:45
  • @ Man_From_India, That is helpful, thanks.
    – user421993
    May 4, 2021 at 14:56

2 Answers 2

  • The kids were told that 2 to the power of 3 is 8.

For general truths, the present tense can be used.

  • I was told the sky is blue but I don't believe it.

The condition of the sky remains the same. Therefore, is is used.

Compare that to:

  • I was told the sky was blue. [on that day but not today, for example]

was/is depends on what a speaker wishes to say.

WHEREAS: The sentence below is reported speech: The kids were told that President Joe Biden would visit their school.

It works like this: will becomes would in reported speech:

"Children, President Biden will visit our school". [Actual speech]

The principal told the children that President Biden would visit the school. That is reported speech.

  • It seems there is quite a difference in usage between the UK and US. Professor John Lawler, an American linguist, told me yesterday that "general truths" wasn't a phrase acceptable to Americans. He also reminded me of searching for grammar rules from recognized and authoritative sources.
    – user421993
    May 4, 2021 at 14:42
  • @user421993 may I get a chance to have a look at the discussion between you two? Because I want to know the difference. May 4, 2021 at 15:15
  • @user421993 He may express this usage another way. But the usage is right: a statement using an x is y clause can be used with another in the past tense if one wants to refer to the permanence of a state or condition. As for general truths not being acceptable to Americans, it is you who have misunderstood him. I showed you with my examples how this works. I suggest you reread my two sentences. Finally, there is NO difference between US and UK usage as the point is not grammar: it's semantics.
    – Lambie
    May 4, 2021 at 15:16
  • @ Lambie, Perhaps you're right. This topic is about semantics, not grammar. But he did state that he didn't accept the phrase " general truths" about which I had showed him the source.
    – user421993
    May 4, 2021 at 17:54
  • @user421993 So get the name for it from him.
    – Lambie
    May 4, 2021 at 18:10

The mathematical operation is valid in a manner not bound by time. But the visit of the president was, it would happen in a specific time, and also it could not happen depending on the circumstances.

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