1

Okay, this is a little hard to explain. So here's an example:

My cousin became a Catholic. My relatives were shocked, since neither they or their ancestors had belonged to that religion.

As you can see, "had" here only agrees with the second item:

My cousin became a Catholic. My relatives were shocked, since they didn't belong to that religion.

My cousin became a Catholic. My relatives were shocked, since their ancestors hadn't belonged to that religion.

Is the first example common in English? (Structuring a sentence to only agree with the second item). Or there's a better way to structure sentences like these?

3
  • Which one is "the second item"? Sep 3, 2015 at 15:16
  • 1
    I'm not sure what you're asking. In all your examples, the bolded verb is plural, and agrees with a plural subject: relatives, ancestors or [neither they nor their ancestors].
    – user8399
    Sep 3, 2015 at 15:46
  • 1
    I don't know the answer, but I think the question is about the following. When discussing the relatives a past tense is used, but when discussing the ancestors the perfect past tense is used. The question is then whether the perfect past tense is correct, when discussing both the relatives and the ancestors together. Sep 3, 2015 at 20:01

2 Answers 2

2

One of the uses of Perfect tenses is to describe repetitive event or action in the past:

I've often thought I'd enjoy answering questions on StackExchange.
He mentioned that he had visited his aunt weekly before she passed.

Relatives and their ancestors' belonging to a religion could be considered repetitive because there are (usually) numerous ancestors and each of them likely belonged to some kind of religion.

Since the narration is in the Past tense ("relatives were shocked"), the author justifiedly used Past Perfect tense to refer to a repetitive act/event.

I would probably have used "nor" instead of "or" in the second sentence.

1

Generally, verb tenses should match. So, either "had" applies to both or the sentence should be reworded. A sentence with different verb tenses is okay in certain situations, such as when an event in the past effects a later event, but they would need to be in separate clauses (better explained in this article: Grammar Girl).


The example would be a little less complicated if "neither" was removed by changing "that" to "another":

My cousin became a Catholic. My relatives were shocked, because they and their ancestors had belonged to another religion.


Then, the separate scenarios are easier to analyze:

My cousin became a Catholic. My relatives were shocked, because they belonged to another religion.

My cousin became a Catholic. My relatives were shocked, because their ancestors had belonged to another religion.


My first suggestion would be to drop the "had" altogether:

My cousin became a Catholic. My relatives were shocked, because they and their ancestors belonged to another religion.


I realize though that this is just an example, so if in some other case you absolutely need to use the past perfect tense, then the verb tenses should match. If using the same verb tense doesn't make sense, then, in my opinion, the sentence should be reworded (or even split into separate sentences), e.g.:

My cousin became a Catholic. My relatives were shocked, because they belonged to another religion, just as their ancestors had.

You must log in to answer this question.

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