The Answer

Mixed verb tenses in a sentence

Mixed verb tenses in a sentence can be confusing for English learners. They can be ambiguous unless you understand the full context of the exchange and may even appear to be grammatically incorrect. In this question from Steve in Mexico we take a look at one set of mixed tense sentences and untangle their meaning by placing them into some contextual situations.

mixed verb tenses in a sentence

Question from Steve in Mexico:

what’s the correct way of saying this?

  1. I was thinking of what to eat when i CAME home
  2. I was thinking of what to eat when i COME home

Thank you.

Hi Steve,

This is an interesting question as they can both be right. It’s really a question of context.

As they stand (without context) each sentence is a bit ambiguous – we are not sure where the subject is (the ‘I’ person), or whether they are answering a question or simply making a statement.

If we put each sentence into a context then we can see why both could be correct:

  • What were you thinking when you came home?
  • I was thinking of what to eat (when I came home).

I’ve put the ‘when I came home‘ in brackets here as usually you would omit it in a response to the question where it is already included. In this sentence using the simple past of ‘to come’ signifies that the action of ‘thinking’ has been interrupted by arriving at home – here ‘to come home’ is equivalent to ‘to arrive home’.

Sentence examples:

  • What were you thinking when you saw me? I was thinking how much I loved you.
  • I was dreaming of seeing my family again when I woke up.
  • I was hoping that it would be easier to make friends when I came to this school.

Now let’s look at the second sentence:

What were you thinking? (for simplicity, imagine this asked by a person who is ‘at home’ asking a person who is not yet at home).

I was thinking of what to eat when I come home.

In this sentence, the subject is thinking about a future ‘imagined’ action and the verb ‘to come’ is equivalent to ‘to get home / to arrive home’ at a point in the near future.

In another sentence, for example, you could say:

  • I was thinking of studying astronomy when I grow up.
  • I was thinking of visiting Spain when I travel next year.

Hope that has helped, Steve, and not made it even more confusing!

Anthony Hughes
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