Learn English – Problem with backshift in reporting clauses


This is the subject that's been bugging me for quite some time now, even though I believe I've managed to grasp the entire reported speech pretty well.

If I want to repeat to someone what I previously said about my opinion on swimming, I could go either with #1:

  1. I said I didn't like to swim.

if I didn't want to emphasize anything, or with #2,

  1. I said I don't like to swim.

if I want to make it clear that my not liking to swim still holds true.

What I can't understand is why I have to switch tenses back if I'm talking about things like:

  1. He didn't know California was on the West Coast.

It's obvious that California hasn't moved a single inch, so why can't I express it by saying:

  1. He didn't know California is on the West Coast.

Similarly, is such shifting required in every utterance of such meaning? For example:

  1. I told you it was impossible to fly.

It's obvious that no matter how hard I tried I still wouldn't be able to fly. So can't I say "is impossible" (#7) in this case?

  1. I told you it is impossible to fly.

Best Answer

I agree with @Cord's answer and comment about defaulting to the past tense. I simply wish to add some references so that the OP can make up his or her mind about the acceptability of sentences such as I told you it's impossible to fly.

Firstly, this is what the Collins Cobuild English Grammar (p327) has to say about the "default" use of the past tense:

When the reporting verb is in a past tense, a past tense is also usually used for the verb in the reported clause even if the reported situation still exists. For example, you could say "I told him I was eighteen" even if you are still eighteen. You are concentrating on the situation at the past time you are talking about.

The CCEG then goes on to state:

A present tense is sometimes used instead, to emphasize that the situation still exists.

Swan in Practical English Usage (p251) writes:

If somebody talks about a situation that has still not changed - that is to say, if the original speaker's present and future are still present and future - a reporter can often choose whether to keep the original speaker's tenses or to change them, after a past reporting verb. Both structures are common.

  • DIRECT: The earth goes round the sun.
  • INDIRECT: He proved that the earth goes/went round the sun.

Huddleston and Pullum in A Student's Introduction to English Grammar (p47) state:

Even with preterite reporting verbs backshift is often optional: You can keep the original tense instead of backshifting. Instead of [I told Stacy that Kim had blue eyes], therefore, we can have: I told Stacy that Kim has blue eyes.

Yule in Explaining English Grammar (p272) states:

The forms used in a reported version of previous talk can vary a great deal and typically depend on the perspective of the reporter. If the speaker thinks that the situation being reported is still true at the time of the report, then there may be no backshifting.

Quirk et al. in A Comprehensive Grammar Of The English Language (p1027) state:

Backshift is optional when the time reference of the original utterance is valid at the time of the reported utterance.

They list several examples, including:

  • Their teacher had told them that the earth moves around the sun.
  • I heard her say that she is studying Business Administration.
  • I didn't know that our meeting is next Tuesday.
  • They thought that prison conditions have improved.

Finally, Huddleston and Pullum, in the monumental Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, currently the most authoritative descriptive grammar (p155), state:

Very often, the use of a backshifted preterite is optional. Jill's "I have too many commitments" may be given in indirect reported speech in two ways:

  • Jill said she had too many commitments.
  • Jill said she has too many commitments.

In a lengthy discussion of contexts in which the present tense is likely to be retained by the reporter, they state:

If I endorse or accept the original, this will somewhat favour the deictic present version, and conversely if I reject it this will favour backshift.

  • She said she doesn't need it so I'll let Bill have it. [accepted: non-backshifted]

  • She said that there was plenty left, but there's hardly any. [rejected: backshifted]

If we contextualise the flying example, we could say that the backshift is more likely if the telling happened a long time ago. Maybe 5 years ago your friend told you he was working on a pair of wings so he could fly to the shops. Now, after 5 years of fruitless attempts, he tells you of his failure. You then remind him of what you said:

I told you it was impossible to fly.

As Cord says: "We are more concerned about the report itself (the source and context of the information)".

Conversely, imagine that your friend comes in one day with a pair of wings and tells you she is going to fly around the garden. You tell her it's impossible. She then makes several unsuccessful attempts, at the end of which you remind her of what you said an hour before:

I told you it's impossible to fly.

The emphasis here is on the general (and present) impossibility of flying and not on the telling.