Summary: A look at backshifting and other aspects of indirect speech
1. George said, “I am going to Prague tomorrow”. ....... 2. George said (that) he was going to Prague the next day.
3. “Where is Emma going?” asked Charles. .................. 4. Charles asked me where Emma was going,
5a. I wonder where Luke lives. ..... 5b. I do not know where Luke lives. ..... 5c.Can you tell me where Luke lives?,
#1 and #3 are examples of direct speech – the words used are exactly those used by the speakers when they uttered them.
#5a, b and c are also examples of indirect questions, but they are not reported questions. Although they each have an underlying question, “Where does Luke live?” that direct question is never uttered.
1. George said, ..............“I ......am ......going to Prague...... tomorrow”. .....
2. George said (that) .....he..... was..... going to Prague..... the next day.
In these notes we shall concentrate on the change in tense, though we shall look at a number of other points associated with indirect speech.
The change in tense that we find in some, but not all, examples of indirect speech is often referred to as backshifting – the tenses are shifted/moved back to one normally used for a previous time:
Present Tenses become past tenses:
“I am going home.” – He said he was going home.
“Do you feel sick?” – She asked John if he felt sick.
Present perfect becomes past perfect:
“Lindsay has left home.” – She said (that) Lindsay had left home.
“I have been looking for you.” He said that he had been looking for me.
Past tenses normally become past perfect:
“When did you leave Germany?” – They asked me when I had left Germany.
“I wasn’t expecting you to say that.” - She said (that) she hadn’t been expecting me to say that.
The modal verbs can, may and will change to could, might and would, respectively.
Could, might, would, should and needn’t do not change - there are no past (perfect) forms of these verbs.
Must generally does not change, though it can change to had to when it denotes obligation. This change is not essential.
We consider shall in section 7.
2. No Backshifting
When the verb of speech introducing the indirect speech is in a present tense (simple, progressive or perfect), we do not backshift:
“I want to go home” – He has been saying (that) he wants to go home.
“I have been looking forward to this” – She says (that) she has been looking forward to this.
“Didn’t Wendy retire last month?” – He is asking if/whether Wendy retired last month.
“We can’t afford it.” - They say (that) they can’t afford it.
“I could see you tomorrow.” – He says (that) he could see me tomorrow.
3. Optional Backshifting
When the verb of speech introducing the indirect speech is in a past tense (simple, progressive or perfect), and the situation reported is still true at the moment of speaking, we can, but do not have to, backshift:
“I want to go home” – He said (that) he wants/wanted to go home.
“I have been looking forward to this” – She said (that) he has/had been looking forward to this.
“Didn’t Wendy retire last month?” – He was asking if/whether Wendy retired/had retired last month.
“We can’t afford it.” - They said (that) they can’t/couldn’t afford it.
“I could see you tomorrow.” – He said (that) he could see me tomorrow.
4. Obligatory Backshifting
When the verb of speech introducing the indirect speech is in a past tense (simple, progressive or perfect), and the situation reported is no longer true at the moment of speaking, we nearly always backshift. However, we do not always shift past tenses to past perfect, though it is always acceptable to do so:
“I want to go home” – He said (that) he wanted to go home.
“I have been looking forward to this” – She says (that) he had been looking forward to it.
“Didn’t Wendy retire last month?” – He was asking if/whether Wendy (had) retired the month before.
“We can’t afford it.” - They said (that) they couldn’t afford it.
“I could see you tomorrow.” – He said (that) he could see me the next day.
5. Indirect Questions
Indirect questions are not, in themselves, questions. They do not normally use the word order of questions and, unless they are contained within a direct question, there is no question mark at the end. If the direct question begins with a wh-word (what when, etc. and how) that word is used to introduce the indirect question. When the direct question requires a yes/no answer, if (or whether) is used to introduce the indirect question:
“Do you like living in Prague? – He asked me if (/whether) I like/liked living in Prague
“When did Julius Caesar return to Rome?” – The teacher asked the class when Julius Caesar (had) returned to Rome.
(“Where is Mary working?”) – Do you know where Mary is working?
Negative questions are generally reported as affirmative questions. (See also Section 6. Functions – Enthusiasm, Surprise)
“Aren’t you coming to my party? – Marion asked if I was going to her party
Many utterances perform a function rather than just impart or ask for information. With such utterances, we tend to report the function rather than the word, for example:
Agreement: “I think you are absolutely right.” – Peter agreed with me.
Instruction:....“Close your books.” – The teacher told us to close our books.
Offer:.......... “I’ll carry your bag for you.” The porter offered to carry Mary’s bag.
Order:............“Stay where you are! – The policeman ordered the men to stay where they were.
Promise: ........“I will pay you back next week” – George promised to pay me back the following week.
Request:........“Please sit down” – He asked us to sit down
Suggestion: ...“Let’s go to the theatre tonight” – Andrea suggested that we go to the theatre that night.
Enthusiasm:.. “Isn’t it a lovely day?” - We said asked that it was not a beautiful day.
Surprise:....... “Don’t you want to come?” – She was surprise/disappointed that I didn’t want to go.
A small number of speakers of BrE use shall instead of will with me and us to express future certainty. This is reported as should if the subject in the indirect speechis I or we, but as would if there is a second or third person subject:
“I shall be in London next week” – I told them that I should be in London the following week.
.....................................................My father told us that he would be in London the following week.
Shall I/we...? may be used for an offer, or to ask if somebody else wants something done:
“Shall I carry your bag for you?” – The porter offered to carry Mary’s bag.
“Shall we come again tomorrow? – The girls asked their grandmother if she wanted them to come again the next day.
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