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Sometimes in an intensive narrative the present tense is used to refer to past events. Such use of the present tense is called praesens historicum. It is formally present but semantically past. How does consecutio temporum of conjunctive subordinate clauses work with it? Should I use present and perfect conjunctive (as if praesens historicum was present) or imperfect and pluperfect conjunctive (as if praesens historicum was a past tense)? If both are possible, is there a difference?

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In English, your consecutio temporum is usually called the ‘sequence of tenses’. There is a general rule that in the principal sentence (i) a primary tense is followed in the subordinate clause by a primary tense, and (ii) a historic tense by a historic tense. In subordinate clauses the subjunctive is usual, incomplete action being represented by the present and imperfect, and completed action by the perfect and pluperfect. The historic present (praesens historicum ) and historic infinitive are mostly used with historic sequence.

There are exceptions, though — e.g. to avoid ambiguity, or in a consecutive clause if it describes a completed action; and in oratio obliqua, conditional statements have a different set of rules.

This is a tricky business in English, too — look at the difference between, for example, I would have liked to see and I would like to have seen, and you may reflect that a majority of speakers rely instead of either of these on I would have liked to have seen, without regard for the niceties of good grammar.

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Tuomo Pekkanen's Ars Grammatica – Latinan kielioppi (§116, lisäys 3) mentions that the historical present can be treated as either a present tense or as a past tense when consecutio temporum is concerned. It gives this example without any citation or further explanation:

Quod cum videret, quaerit, quae causa sit/esset.
When he saw it, he asked what the reason was.

I know this is not very convincing evidence, but it does support the idea of two possibilities.

  • I should guess that 'quaerit, quae causa sit' translates as 'he asked 'what might the reason be?' and 'quae causa esset' as 'what might the reason have been?' – Tom Cotton Oct 17 '16 at 19:58
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    @TomCotton, the grammar states that both mean the same thing: "he asked what the reason was". Therefore I would expect "he asked what the reason might have been" would have either fuerit or fuisset. I tend to agree with the grammar, but I don't have a strong opinion; I'm mainly reproducing its statement here. – Joonas Ilmavirta Oct 17 '16 at 20:04
  • There's no problem. Each of my translations, in effect, means the same thing, too. They are just a matter of style and personal preference, unless we are being very, very picky! – Tom Cotton Oct 17 '16 at 20:25
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    I seem to have seen past tenses used in this case, i.e. in my experience the praesens historicum normally counts as a past tense as regards the consecutio temporum. Wherever a full shift to an all-present account is possible, I'd expect all verbs in that part of the story to reflect this—no mixing. So in your example I would most definitely expect esset because of videret. But perhaps we should do some corporeal research first... – Cerberus Oct 18 '16 at 2:03

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