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Consider the following combination. Which is the correct one?

  1. テレビが私の国で 《できた》 のは1960 《です》。
  2. テレビが私の国で 《できる》 のは1960 《です》。
  3. テレビが私の国で 《できた》 のは1960 《でした》。
  4. テレビが私の国で 《できる》 のは1960 《でした》。

Note: The important words are intentionally bracketed for the sake of emphasizing.

  • I guess: (1) is the most common. (2) sounds like a narrative in a documentary film. (3) is syntactically the most accurate, but some may regard it too formal (though je ne suis pas de cette avis = "I am not of that opinion.") (4) is, like (2), something of a narrative and syntactically (mildly) questionable. – eltonjohn Jun 28 '15 at 2:59
  • 1
    I think (3) is the most common, (1) is also fine. In this context, (2) (4) are strange, since making TV sets are past event. We say 電車が(初めて)走ったのは1960年でした/です, but never say 電車が走るのは1960年です/でした – user51966 Jun 28 '15 at 3:40
15

In English, the tense of the main clause and relative clauses is usually relative to the time at which the sentence is spoken.

I waited until the bus came.

You use the past tense on both verbs because both the waiting and the coming happened in the past. But while you were waiting, the bus hadn't come yet! So, relative to the action of waiting, the bus coming happened in the future (but still in the past of when the sentence was spoken.)

In Japanese, on the other hand, only the tense of the main clause is relative to now. The tense of relative and subordinate clauses is relative to the time the main clause happens. So in the above sentence, the verb "came" would actually be in the non-past (aka. present) tense, even though it (the bus coming) has already happened in the past:

バスが来るまで待った。

If the whole thing hasn't happened yet, only the final verb must change:

バスが来るまで待つ。
I will wait until the bus comes.

This entire concept is also why 後で always takes the past and 前に always takes the non-past. With 後で, the relative clause is always in the main clause's past (happened before it), and thus must take the past:

食べた後で歯を磨いた。
After eating, I brushed my teeth.

Even if both eating and brushing teeth is in the future, 食べる must be in the past because it is past relative to the main verb (磨く).

The opposite of this happens with 前に. It is always after the main clause- in the main clause's future- so the verb before 前に must be in the non-past form:

歯を磨く前に食べた。
I ate before brushing my teeth.

Even (indirect) quotes follow this rule, as they are subordinate clauses. In fact, this allows the speaker to give a bit more information when compared to English:

私はなおみが学校にいると思った。
私はなおみが学校にいたと思った。
I thought Naomi was at school.

These both translate to the same English sentence, but they do not share the same meaning. The former implies that the speaker thinks Naomi is at school as he's thinking, while the latter means the speaker thinks Naomi was at school sometime even further in the past (but probably somewhere else at the time of thinking). Again, changing only the main verb and retaining the tense of the subordinate verbs still holds these temporal relationships.

This may sound crazy, but in your example, I believe the the relative clause is actually happening at the same time as the main clause. The reason I say this is because both the subordinate and the main clause are referring to the same thing- the creation date, which will be the same from 1960 and forward. But because you're talking after 1960, both 2 and 4 will sound weird, as 1960 is in the past. Option 1 works because it's just stating the current creation date- 1960. Option 3 also works because it's stating the creation date at some point in the past- still 1960. So either option 1 or option 3 will work fine.

  • How about 私はなおみが学校にいたと思っています and 私はなおみが学校にいたと思っていました? – Friendly Ghost Jun 28 '15 at 6:49
  • @Friendly Ghost: Without context, I would say 私はなおみが学校にいたと思っています -> "I still think that Naomi was at school." and 私はなおみが学校にいたと思っていました ->" I used to think that Naomi was at school." But you may want to provide context for more appropriate translation(s). – eltonjohn Jun 28 '15 at 11:46
  • "These both translate to the same English sentence". I would translate the latter as "I thought Naomi had been at school". – dainichi Jun 29 '15 at 1:27
  • I don't understand, you say that 4 is weird, but I thought you were exactly arguing that the verb in the subclause can be "present tense" if ocurring at the same time as the main verb? – dainichi Jun 29 '15 at 1:28

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