More on Reported (indirect) speech (with past tense)



Azar’s statement reflects modern-day usage, especially in conversation, but also in written usage, except for formal style. The past perfect is being used less and less as time goes by, and the simple past (or even the simple present) is being widely used in its place. Here are some examples from the World Wide Web:


Tony said that he went to the budget meeting last week and let them know that the Personnel Committee was requesting a little more money for advertising purposes.


He once said that he went to college for 25 cents a day, counting the trip back and forth on the subway and a sandwich at a deli.


Xiao Xue, just turned twenty, is a student of the history of art. She said that she began to practice "Falun Gong" when she was in high school.


He said that they arrived at the Sun City Hotel and about an hour later there was a knock on the door and there she was.

As Burkhard Leuschner points out, the example sentence “I said that Paul went to the movies yesterday” is too artificial and too devoid of a context to serve as a test case for whether to “backshift” the verb —that is, to shift “backwards” from the past to the past perfect in the dependent clause. In real life, reporting what someone has said takes place in real time, in real situations. The reporting verb —say, tell, etc. — appears in the appropriate tense. Now, if the reporting is anchored in a clearly past situation, the verb(s) in the dependent clause may be (but does not always have to be) backshifted.
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Consider the direct conversation below, and then the two scenarios that follow.

Direct speech (actual conversation in the supermarket):

Bart: Hi, Cindy. How are you? Any word about Jay’s Himalayan

Cindy: Yes, he called this morning and told me that everything is ready for the climb.

Reported speech (What Bart reported about this conversation in the supermarket—the last line of each scenario):

Scenario 1:

Bart: Hi, Alice. I saw Jay’s sister Cindy at the supermarket about an hour ago.

Alice: Oh, any word about his Himalayan expedition?

Bart: Yes, she said he called yesterday morning and told her that everything is ready for the climb.

If the act of reporting is seen as still “fresh” and part of the present time frame, even though the tense of the original verb was past, the dependent material can be—and often is—left unchanged. In fact, in this scenario changing the verb forms of called and told to the past perfect would be unnatural.

Scenario 2:

Bart: Hi, Alice. I saw Jay’s sister Cindy at the supermarket last Friday

Alice: Oh, any word about his Himalayan expedition?

Bart: Yes, she said he had called that morning and told her that everything was ready for the climb.

In this scenario, Cindy’s reporting was clearly in a past situation. Bart’s words are about a situation that is somewhat remote in time, and disconnected from the present.
In Scenario 2, the speaker might use the past perfect—had called and (had) told—in the dependent clause.

* * *

In conversations and in informal written discourse, the past tense, not the past perfect, is used for the reported material. In formal written discourse, however, the past perfect is still used, especially when there is a possibility of misunderstanding about the time of the reported event.

So, choosing the appropriate verb tense depends on many factors: (1) the “freshness” of the reporting, (2) the mode of communication, whether spoken or written, and (3) the level of formality or informality. No single form fits all cases.

Marilyn Martin

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