Tense and Aspect: 3. The Marked Tense, Part 3


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3.2.3. Distancing in Directness
Continued from here: https://www.usingenglish.com/forum/threads/287495-Tense-and-Aspect-3-The-Marked-Tense-Part-2

Some writers[1] claim that the use of could and would in requests is 'more polite' than can and will, as in:

  1. Can/could you open the window please?
  2. Will/would you post this letter when you go out?

If by 'more polite' we understand 'more diffident, more hesitant, less direct', then this is true. The reason, however, is not simply that some words are more polite than others. It is that could and would are the marked forms of can and will; marked forms distance. Here the distancing is in directness[2]. We see exactly the same use of marked forms for distancing in:

  1. What was your name?
  2. A: Did you want something?
B: I wondered if you had a moment. I wanted to ask you about the meeting.

3.2.4. Backshifting

Backshifting is the changing of unmarked forms in direct speech to marked forms in indirect speech:

  1. John said “I am hungry”.
  2. John said (that) he was hungry.

Some writers[3] suggest that, when the reporting verb is in a marked tense, the tenses in the direct speech must be backshifted, as in [22] and [23] except when the words said represent an eternal truth:

  1. Mr Dover said “Water freezes at 100º Celsius”.
  2. Mr Dover said (that) water freezes at 100º Celsius”.

This is simply not true. If the situation reported still holds true at the time of the time of reporting, then backshifting is not obligatory. [23a] is perfectly acceptable (if the speaker believes that John is still hungry:

23a. John said (that) he is hungry.

Equally untrue is the belief that non-backshifting for universal truth is obligatory. Non-backshifting is common, but not essential; [25a] is acceptable:

25a. Mr Dover said (that) water froze at 100º Celsius.

Very often, the use of a backshifted preterite is optional[4]. If speakers see in some ways the words uttered as being distanced in time, they are likely to backshift the tenses. If they see no distancing, they do not backshift. It follows, therefore, that if a situation no longer hold true, backshifting is obligatory. We cannot say John said (that) he is hungry if we know that he is no longer hungry,

For some speakers, distancing in reality is a possibility. If speakers believe a reported statement to be true, they do not backshift; if they believe it may be untrue, they backshift:

  1. Mary told me she has a holiday home on Phuket. (I am impressed.)
  2. Mary told me she had a holiday home on Phuket, (but I am not sure that she has.)

However, it is not possible to assume that this reality-distancing is intended or will be understood without clear context or co-text such as the bracketed words in [26] and [27]. It is quite possible for such utterances to be made with only (optional) time-distancing, as in:

26a. Mary told me she had a holiday home on Phuket. (I am impressed.)
27a. Mary told me she has a holiday home on Phuket, but I am not sure that she has.)

As is so often the case in English, context sometimes known only to the two parties in a conversation) and co-text are very important in considering why particular tenses/aspects may be appropriate.

It is clear from the examples given in this section that the use of the marked form does not in itself imply reference to past time. As we noted near the beginning of this section:

We use the marked form when we wish to distance the situation in vividness, reality, or directness.

[1] e.g., Thomson and Martinet ([1960] 1986.248, Aitken (1992.121-124).

[2] For Kruisinga ([1911] 1931.25.26 ), it is the Preterite of Modesty that marks the remoteness/distancing in directness.
The ATTITUDINAL PAST reflects for QuIrk et al (1985,188) the tentative attitude of the speaker, rather than past time. This label is also used in Greeenbaum (1996.257). Huddleston (2002.138) feels that this politeness/diffidence feature of the tense comes from avoiding explicit reference to the immediate present. Huddleston (2002. 155). Aarts (2011.250) uses similar words in explaining the past tense used for politeness. Declerck (2006.27), like Huddleston, considers that for this expression of unreality in which none of the situations locates in past time, the tense is used for a modal temporal reason,

[3] e.g., Allen ([1947] 1959.261-1), Thomson and Martinet ([1960] 1986.270)

[4] Huddleston (2002. 155).
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