I need to categorise an assortment of statements based on their tense and a few of them I am struggling to categorise.

Take the following sentence:

John needs to make a slight improvement to achieve the grade he was aiming for in Mathematics

Correct me if I'm wrong but I believe there are three verbs tenses in this sentence:

needs to - future present tense
achieve - present tense
was aiming for - past tense

Which verb in this sentence defines what tense it is? Is there a simple set of rules one can follow to define the tense of a sentence?

Thank you.

  • @BenjaminHarman Thanks. So if I understand correctly, the verb directly adjacent to the subject of the sentence - i.e. John - is called the subject-verb, and this verb is the one which defines what the tense of the sentence is?
    – joe92
    Apr 30, 2021 at 16:42
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    No, you're not understanding it correctly. A subject-verb is the combined subject and verb of a clause, so the subject-verb of the main clause is "John needs," "John" being the subject and "needs" being the verb. Yes, it is this verb, "needs," that defines what the tense of the sentence is since it is the verb in the subject-verb of the sentence's main clause, as opposed to the subject-verb of a subordinate clause, like "he was" is later on in the sentence. Apr 30, 2021 at 17:07
  • @BenjaminHarman I think I have it. The subject-verb is both the subject and the verb. The verb in the subject-verb of the main clause defines the tense. Appreciate your help!
    – joe92
    Apr 30, 2021 at 17:10
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    In your example, the main clause is the sentence as whole: "John needs [to make a slight improvement [to achieve the grade [he was aiming for in Mathematics]]]". The matrix verb is "needs" which is present tense. In the subordinate clauses, bracketed, "make" and "achieve" are infinitivals and, as you say "was aiming" is past tense.
    – BillJ
    Apr 30, 2021 at 17:51
  • "Make" and "achieve" aren't in subordinate clauses. A grammatical clause always has its own subject-verb. "Make" and "achieve" are in the main clause, the subject of which is "John." The main clause is "John needs to make a slight improvement to achieve the grade." The only subordinate clause is "(that) he was aiming for in mathematics," a relative clause that restrictively modifies "grade." A verb alone does not a clause make. Apr 30, 2021 at 18:43

2 Answers 2



The tense of a sentence is determined by the tense of the verb in the main clause's subject-verb. The main clause's subject-verb is "John needs," "John" being the subject and "needs" being the verb. Since "needs" is present tense, the tense of the sentence is present tense.

Additional Notes:

You state in your details that "needs to" is future tense. That isn't true. "Needs" is present tense. John has a present need for making a slight improvement in order to achieve the grade he was previously aiming for.

You'll notice I italicized "was" in the paragraph above. I do that because that's what your sentence says, but I question its use since John's present need (i.e., "John needs") tends to indicate that's the grade he has been or is aiming for, not "was." It's evident the action of aiming for continues in the present and isn't actually complete in the past, for if it were, then logic dictates John wouldn't presently need to make slight improvement, that aiming for being why John presently needs to make slight improvement (i.e., expressly to achieve that aim).

  • Thanks for the comments and answer. I agree that the use of the word was is making this sentence in particular confusing. Unless the subject-verb was changed to needed then was just doesn't make sense.
    – joe92
    Apr 30, 2021 at 17:08
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    FWIW, the use of "was" here seems perfectly natural and idiomatic to me. It suggests that we know what John's original target grade used to be, but we have no idea if he's still aiming for that target or if he's since given up on it. Or, for all we know, he could even have decided to aim for a higher target instead. But if he's still aiming for that same target, then he needs to work a bit harder and do better in future exams. May 1, 2021 at 14:35

"Subject-verb" is not a technical term in grammar or linguistics. It's a term some teacher used to mean whatever verb or auxiliary the subject is thought to agree with. So forget about that term, please.

The question as posed

Which verb defines the tense of a sentence?

has no answer, because it's improperly phrased. Sentences do not have a defined tense. Tense is a property of clauses, expressed by inflection of their verbs. Since every clause has a verb, and some have tenses, that splits clauses into tensed and untensed categories. Infinitives, gerunds, and participles are not inflected for tense, and therefore are untensed, or "non-finite" (this is where "infinitive" comes from).

Tensed clauses are called "finite" by comparison, and a "finite verb" is one that has a tense inflection of either present (am, is, are, goes, has, have, gets, wants, ...) or past (was, were, went, had, got, wanted, ...). Those are the only tenses in English, and there's one or the other in every finite English clause. No future tense, and no perfect tense (there's a Perfect construction). Present and past are it.

So in the sentence presented, there are four clauses (because there are four verbs: needs, to make, to achieve, and was aiming). To make and to achieve are infinitives and therefore untensed. Needs is present tense, and was aiming is past tense, Progressive construction.

As you can see, no verb defines the tense of a sentence, since sentences don't have tense unless they're simple clauses. But the inflected verb or auxiliary defines the tense of the clause, if there is one.

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    +1 Are imperative and subjunctive forms non-finite in the grammar you subscribe to? Apr 30, 2021 at 22:10
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    In English, imperatives are certainly non-finite. The "present subjunctive" (We require that he be in by 12) is just an infinitive, hence non-finite; the "past subjunctive" (I wish it was that easy) is past tense, though with some variation (I wish it were that easy), now becoming archaic. Only the name lingers on. Apr 30, 2021 at 23:56
  • I understood "tense of the sentence" to mean the tense of the super-ordinate clause, "John needs [object phrase]". Does that not make sense?
    – wjandrea
    May 1, 2021 at 1:31
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    The OP is clearly asking about the matrix verb, which is the present tense "needs". The other verbs are predicators in subordinate clauses, and hence do not determine the tense of the whole sentence. That's all the OP was getting at.
    – BillJ
    May 1, 2021 at 7:12

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