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I asked someone to correct my sentence in the other site, the sentence is:

I saw her yelling at her boyfriend, but he seemed to be indifferent.

They corrected the sentence for the usage of the tense in the second clause:

I saw her yelling at her boyfriend, but he seems to be being indifferent.

I still can't see the mistake of my version. Does that mean, I have to use simple present when there's a verb to describe a state?

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  • 33
    Whatever that other site is, don't ask them for English language advice again.
    – The Photon
    Feb 25 at 3:10
  • @ThePhoton I'll keep that in mind. Thanks.
    – user516076
    Feb 25 at 11:13
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    "seems to be being" is a construction that I can't think of any case where that would be correct--definitely don't use that.
    – Hearth
    Feb 25 at 17:23
  • @Hearth it's correct where you are describing something that happened to him, and contrasting that to his current, ongoing behavior. IT also implies that his indifference is deliberate.
    – fectin
    Feb 26 at 19:56
  • @fectin Technically correct, perhaps, but nevertheless bad writing.
    – David K
    Feb 26 at 22:38

3 Answers 3

17

Your version is correct. Whatever site you used to "correct" the sentence is incorrect... changing the tense in this way creates a tense mismatch, and is simply wrong in English.

Furthermore, there are two types of mistakes in grammar. There are mistakes that a native speaker might regularly make, and there are mistakes that non-native learners of English as a second language might make. This kind of tense mismatch seems to me to be a mistake that no native English speaker would ever make. It's awkward, strange, and has all the sense that the person writing it this way does not a have a good grasp on how to speak English at all.

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    I agree that in this case, the change in tense is incorrect. It's not true that both verbs in a coordination must have the same tense; "I went to Paris yesterday, and I will go to Berlin tomorrow." for example.
    – James K
    Feb 25 at 6:35
  • 2
    @JamesK: "Coordination" has little to do with it. I can remove the coordination from the example, and you could still have the tense match: "I saw her yelling at her boyfriend. He seemed to be indifferent." Two sentences, no coordination, but a tense match. Note that at this point, things get tricky: "I saw her yelling at her boyfriend. He seems to be indifferent." This is a somewhat unusual form, but not nearly as awkward.
    – MSalters
    Feb 25 at 13:49
  • @MSalters Now if the sentences were "I saw her yelling at her boyfriend. He still seems to be indifferent", it would make sense again, because now it is clear that we are looking at two temporally independent observations.
    – orithena
    Feb 25 at 16:17
  • "She has been getting less and less subtle about how she communicates. I saw her yelling at her boyfriend, but he seems to be being indifferent. I wonder what it will take to get through to him?"
    – fectin
    Feb 26 at 19:58
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Unlike Richard Winters I wouldn't say the correction is ungrammatical, but it is at least a little awkward, and it significantly changes the meaning.

I saw her yelling at her boyfriend, but he seemed to be indifferent.

The past tense with the second clause means that the being indifferent is roughly happening in the same timeframe as the yelling — there's a bit of flexibility here but I'd reason it would mean either during the yelling or perhaps in the time immediately following. I suspect this is probably what you intended, and for this purpose there is absolutely nothing wrong with this sentence.

I saw her yelling at her boyfriend, but he seems to be being indifferent.

This to me changes the meaning substantially to mean that, while the yelling still happened in the past, the being indifferent is happening now. Maybe you never saw the boyfriend originally when the yelling occurred (he was in a different room or something?) and you've only just met up with him after the yelling. However, as I said originally, I think this is awkward. I think I would expect either a version without the continuous ("but he seems to be indifferent") as I don't think it really adds much, or else using the continuous but with a different verb to avoid "be being" ("but he seems to be acting indifferently" — the "-ly" would sometimes be left out in casual speech in some dialects).

I am a native British English speaker.

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    "to be being"? I cannot recall having seen that form ever before. If anything, I'd add in a "now" to clarify the tense mismatch is intentional. "I saw her yelling at her boyfriend, but he now seems to be indifferent.". And that recounts two different observations
    – MSalters
    Feb 25 at 13:53
  • @MSalters doesn't seem uncommon though books.google.com/ngrams/… books.google.com/ngrams/… . It's just the standard form of what would otherwise be "is being" when an infinitive is needed.
    – Muzer
    Feb 25 at 14:08
  • If I were expressing the meaning you propose, I would most likely put the first clause in the present perfect: “I’ve seen her yelling at her boyfriend, but he acts indifferent.” This also changes the meaning (weakly implying that I’ve seen it happen repeatedly), but I could add “once” or “one time” to address that. That feels to me like a less awkward way to express that we’re reacting in the present to a past event.
    – Davislor
    Feb 25 at 16:00
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    Adding a temporal modifier also would make it sound less awkward to my ear: “But he seems indifferent to that now,” or “He seemed indifferent when I brought it up.”
    – Davislor
    Feb 25 at 16:04
  • @MSalters Eg. "He is being difficult." Which gives an easy jump to "He seems to be being difficult." Being indifferent is certainly an unusual construction, but would make sense in the context of depression or similar.
    – fectin
    Feb 26 at 20:01
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It's actually pretty common to slip into the present tense in longish narratives about the past. "I went into this bar, right? And the guy there, he says to me...and I say back to him...and then this other guy walks in..." It's accepted practice, but it has a particular style to it. To my ear it's folksy and informal, and it may help draw your audience into the events as you recount them.

But honestly I think it's widely overused and even mis-used. I'll frequently see interviews on TV that go along the lines of: "You went over to his house?" "Yes, I went over there." "And he's there?" "Yes." "And he's got the gun?" "Yes, he has the gun". Something about this grates on me; it's imprecise at best but I think it's worse than just imprecise. Actions ("He says to me") are clearly point in time but when dealing with states ("he's angry", "he's got a gun") it may be a deliberate attempt at blurring past and present for some particular agenda. Some statements carry a lot more power in the present tense, and that power may not be fully warranted.

You certainly can't go wrong using the correct tenses: you came, you saw, you conquered; it was good enough for Caesar. Keep your ear peeled for examples of the false-present tense as you hear them, and decide for yourself if it's something you want to work into your own usage.

And certainly avoid "to be being".

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