Changes in Tense, Backshift

Whether the tense changes in the reported phrase depends on the tense of the reporting verb. Most of the time, the reporting verb is "say" or "tell". Also, it normally comes at the beginning of the sentence.
"I love your shoes", Tom said. Tom says he loves my shoes.
Reporting verb: simple present or present perfect Tense does not change!
This might sound complicated, but it is really easy:
  • Direct speech: Sue: "I often go to school by bike." (Here, "go" is in simple present)
  • Indirect speech: Sue says she often goes to school by bike. (The reporting verb "say" is in simple present)
  • Indirect speech: Sue has told me that she goes to school by bike. (The reporting verb is in present perfect)
Did you notice that there are two different examples for indirect speech?
  • In the first of these two, the reporting verb "say" is in the simple present. You would use it if you repeat what someone else said just a minute ago – in our example, Sue might still be present.
  • The second one has its reporting verb in the present perfect ("has said"). In this case you repeat what someone else has said some time ago, for example after Sue has already left.
Reporting verb: simple past ("he said", "he told me") Tense in the reported sentence changes, is it backshifted.
The table below will explain this further.
simple present simple past
Marc: "I take a walk every Sunday." Marc said he took a walk every Sunday.
simple past past perfect
Anna: "I enjoyed the holiday." Anna said she had enjoyed the holiday.
present perfect past perfect
Lucas: "I have never been to America." Lucas said he had never been to America.
will would
Sophie: "I will meet her this afternoon." Sophie said she would meet her that afternoon.
can could
Toby: "I can help you if you want." Toby said he could help me if I wanted.
may might
Mrs Wood: "Tina may come to visit me any time." Mrs Wood said that Tina might visit her any time.
Verbs in the past perfect do not change. Also, "would, could, might, should" and "ought to" stay the same.
Test yourself in the exercise below! Match up the direct speech with the appropriate "translation" into reported speech!
  • He said that he could not read a newpaper without his glasses.
  • Maria told me she had not known that.
  • He said he had always loved to listen to music.
  • She said she would go to the supermarket the next day.
  • She said she loved chocolate.
  • He says he hates it when it is raining.
  • Maria: "I did not know that."
  • Andrew: "I have always loved to listen to music."
  • Sandy: "I love chocolate."
  • Harold: "I cannot read a newspaper without my glasses."
  • Jennifer: "I will go to the supermarket tomorrow."
  • Marc: "I hate it when it is raining."

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