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  1. #1
    Heidi is offline Member
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    Post Why is this sentence in past tense?

    Would you please tell me why the following sentence uses were in the past tense? Especially when it is talking about something we are going to do today? Thank you!

    - What were we supposed to do today?

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Why is this sentence in past tense?

    It has the idea of: What was the obligation that was imposed on us in the past?
    Please do not edit your question after it has received a response. Such editing can make the response hard for others to understand.


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    Heidi is offline Member
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    Default Re: Why is this sentence in past tense?

    Quote Originally Posted by 5jj View Post
    It has the idea of: What was the obligation that was imposed on us in the past?
    Sorry, I don't understand it.

    The above sentence might be said by a teacher at the beginning of a class --- maybe the teacher just said it to himself --- well, let's see what we were supposed to do today, we are going to be talking about the article "Symphony Orchestra". Please turn to page ...

    If it were in this case, why wouldn't the teacher say "What ARE we supposed to do today?"? Thank you!

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    Default Re: Why is this sentence in past tense?

    Unless the teacher had made promises in the previous class about what was going to be covered in this class, 'are' is more likely.
    Please do not edit your question after it has received a response. Such editing can make the response hard for others to understand.


  5. #5
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    Default Re: Why is this sentence in past tense?

    The teacher might have decided what to do in class today, in the car, on the way to school. However, by the time the class started, he might have forgotten what he decided. He could then say, aloud, but almost a rhetorical question:

    What were we supposed to do in this class?

    What he really means is "What did I decide we would do in this class? I've forgotten!"

    However, as 5jj said, he might have told the children in the previous lesson, something like "Next lesson we're going to learn about Shakespeare". Then he arrives at the next lesson and asks the children "Now, what were we supposed to do in this class?" He might have forgotten but he might just be checking that the children were listening to him in the previous class and can remember what he said.
    Last edited by emsr2d2; 05-Dec-2011 at 09:10.

  6. #6
    Heidi is offline Member
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    Post Re: Why is this sentence in past tense?

    Thank you very much, teachers!

    Please allow me to ask a few more questions.

    What were we supposed to do in this class?

    What he really means is "What did I decide we would do in this class? I've forgotten!"

    Do you mean that when we are saying something, no matter if we are noticing it or not, it reflects what we are thinking of? If at the moment of speaking, we are thinking of something IN THE PAST, we might just use the past tense verbs to describe what we're trying to say, like in this case - "NOW, what WERE we supposed to do in THIS class?"?

    But it seems very unusual to me. Even though I think of something in the past while I'm talking to someone, can I say " what were we supposed to do next Sunday?"? (Perhaps my mother had promised me to take me to the zoo, and I keep thinking of it. So I constantly remind her by asking her this question.)

    What he really means is ...

    Were you suggesting that it sounds better to say "what are we supposed to do in this class?"?

    Or, can I say "last class, I said we were supposed to finish up Chapter 5, so now please turn to page..."?




  7. #7
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    Default Re: Why is this sentence in past tense?

    We can use the past to precede a date in the future if the decision or consideration of a potential activity took place in the past.

    For example, someone asks me if I'm free to go to the cinema tomorrow. I look in my diary but there's nothing in there. However, I feel sure that I had arranged something. As I'm looking in my diary, I might say:

    "I'm just looking at my diary for tomorrow. That's strange, it's empty. That doesn't seem right. What was I supposed to be doing tomorrow?"

    However, before I open my diary I might say:

    "I'm going to look in my diary to see what I am supposed to be doing tomorrow."


    With the statement about the classroom teacher, the connotation can be that he says "What were we supposed to do today?", the children say "Shakespeare!" and he says "Well, I've changed my mind. We were going to do Shakespeare but actually we're going to do Chaucer". Later in the day, a colleague asks him about his morning class. The teacher can say "We were supposed to be doing Shakespeare but I'm a bit bored with that so I did Chaucer with them instead."

    The problem I'm having with explaining this is that not everyone would say "What were we supposed to do ...", some would say "What are we supposed to do ..." As with all spoken English, there's a lot of personal choice and a lot of things can be said which don't follow any particular grammatical rule but make complete sense nonetheless.

  8. #8
    Heidi is offline Member
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    Post Re: Why is this sentence in past tense?

    Thank you very much, emsr2d2 and 5jj. I especially appreciate the illustrations. I finally understand it!

    While I was studying your explanations, I also tried to find the answer in grammar books to my question. It seemed that there was a another possible interpretation for a different situation. I was hoping you would continue giving me some advice.

    In this question, "What were we supposed to do today?", said by a teacher at the beginning of a class. Assuming that there weren't any promises made in the previous class, nor was there any decision made before this class, is it possible that using the past tense verbs in 'What were we supposed to do today?' simply makes the question softer, not so direct, and therefore more polite than 'What are we supposed to do today?'?

    In response to the question 'why was the future continuous tense being used instead of the future tense' in this forum, http://www.usingenglish.com/forum/as...-tomorrow.html, The Parser pointed out a similar point of view:
    Originally posted by TheParser
    'I will not call you today.' sounds too strong because of the word "will." It sounds like a promise. In fact, I think that it sounds almost like: I refuse to call you today.
    ( I also notice there are several places where 'to be doing' is being used rather than 'to do' :
    Originally posted by emsr2d2
    For example, someone asks me if I'm free to go to the cinema tomorrow. I look in my diary but there's nothing in there. However, I feel sure that I had arranged something. As I'm looking in my diary, I might say:

    "I'm just looking at my diary for tomorrow. That's strange, it's empty. That doesn't seem right. What was I supposed to be doing tomorrow?"

    However, before I open my diary I might say:

    "I'm going to look in my diary to see what I am supposed to be doing tomorrow."
    )

    My question is, for example, if I was asked to fill a form when I was applying for something, would you feel it is more polite to hear "Where was I supposed to sign my name?" than "Where am I supposed to sign my name?" Thank you!
    Last edited by Heidi; 06-Dec-2011 at 03:20.

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