I borrowed this fake example from the other question (in my revisions).

I saw a girl dancing at a club. [At that moment] I thought she (is/was ?) so attractive that I (can't/couldn't ?) help but ask for her phone number.

After introducing the clause with At that moment or even without it, should I use is or can? what is the general rule? Are there other occasions that I can use present in past?

  • "That" implies the past, so you use past tense... unless you're quoting yourself... "At that moment I thought, "She is so attractive [...]".
    – Catija
    Aug 4, 2015 at 9:48
  • I think the reported speech will be better. I thought she was so attractive that I couldn't help but ask for her phone number.
    – Khan
    Aug 4, 2015 at 14:56
  • In any case, if you use "thought" you have to keep the other verbs in past tense.
    – BobRodes
    Aug 5, 2015 at 1:15
  • @RobRodes but the answer by TRomano who is a native speaker doesn't have this beleive
    – Ahmad
    Aug 5, 2015 at 4:56

1 Answer 1


I happened upon a spring while hiking the long mountain trail on a hot summer day. I was so thirsty that I thought

..."I have to take a drink".

... I had to take a drink.

... "I cannot walk any farther without taking a drink".

... I could not walk any farther without taking a drink.

All are acceptable. When directly quoting your own thoughts, you're reporting the thought as it occurs to you, hence the present tense. If not directly quoting yourself, you're reporting the thought as something that happened, hence the past tense.

  • In spoken language which is more common?
    – Ahmad
    Aug 4, 2015 at 15:03
  • You can't go wrong using the past-tense. That's simple narrative, whereas quoting one's thoughts verbatim takes the story up a notch: you are then a character in the story you're telling. A simple account might not be able to sustain it.
    – TimR
    Aug 4, 2015 at 15:35
  • 1
    @Ahmad Toss-up, really... In American vernacular, quoting and "setting the scene" is pretty common (like in your OP, "At that moment" describes a context in which the past events you describe are happening now). If you've ever heard an American use the word "like" as a word to denote what happens next (He was like...), the next part is always present tense because it's effectively a quotation. The simplicity of past-tense narrative form hasn't lost its charm though.
    – Crazy Eyes
    Aug 4, 2015 at 19:15
  • My feeling is that it is more common not to use direct quotes in writing, although it's probably more of a toss-up in speech.
    – BobRodes
    Aug 5, 2015 at 1:17

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