verb tense in this relative clause

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Deltago

Member
Mandarin
The sentences below are taken from New Concept English 3 lesson 5.

The article began: 'Hundreds of steps lead to the high wall which surrounds the president's palace.' The editor at once sent the journalist a telegram instructing him to find out the exact number of steps and the height of the wall.
......

However, he had at last been allowed to send a cable in which he informed the editor that he had been arrested while counting the 1084 steps leading to the 15-foot wall which surrounded the president's palace.

Why did the writer use "surrounded" not "surrounds" in the relative clause in red?
My thoughts are as follows.

  • I know there's a rule called "sequence of tenses", which says the verb in the subordinate clause changes its tense in accordance with the tense of the verb in the main clause. However, I doubt if this rule applies to relative clauses, because I can make a few quite normal sentences which don't obey the rule. For example, "The man who is standing by the basketball court used to be a professional player."
  • As far as I know, the past tense is used to talk about things that were true in the past but now aren't. However, I'm quite sure the writer didn't mean that the wall had surrounded the president's palace but didn't at the time of writing the story. So I conclude that things described in past tense aren't necessarily untrue right now. I think past tense can also be used to talk about things whose truth right now is irrelevant.
 
  • Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    What you have here is a straightforward case of backshifting in past-tense reported speech.

    What the journalist actually said in the cable was something like "I have been arrested while counting the stairs leading to the wall which surrounds the palace." When you put this into past tense reported speech, you normally backshift all the verbs: He said that he had been arrested while counting the stairs leading to the wall that surrounded the palace.

    There's no implication that the wall no longer exists.
     

    Deltago

    Member
    Mandarin
    What you have here is a straightforward case of backshifting in past-tense reported speech.

    What the journalist actually said in the cable was something like "I have been arrested while counting the stairs leading to the wall which surrounds the palace." When you put this into past tense reported speech, you normally backshift all the verbs: He said that he had been arrested while counting the stairs leading to the wall that surrounded the palace.

    There's no implication that the wall no longer exists.
    Thank you for your detailed explanation. Now I understand it.
     
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