1. The WordReference Forums have moved to new forum software. (Details)

told me he <was dead / died/ had been dead>[Reported speech]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by alexandra-paris, Jan 18, 2013.

  1. alexandra-paris

    alexandra-paris Junior Member

    Paris
    français-France
    Hi everyone,
    I'd like to get your advice for the following sentences (reported speech).

    1 She told me he was dead twenty years ago
    2 She told me he died twenty years ago
    3 She told me he had been dead twenty years ago
    4 She told me he had been dead for twenty years

    I'm wondering which tense I have to use : preterite or past perfect ?
    I tend to think both are possible but I think that with past perfect as in sentence n°3, you cant' use "ago" but "for" ?
    I'm a little bit confused here... and would be grateful if you can make it clear for me.
    Thank you very much in advance,

    Alexandra
     
  2. Parla Senior Member

    New York City
    English - US
    #1 says to me that she told me this 20 years ago; I don't know when he died, but I'd guess it was 20 years ago, although it might have been earlier.
    #2 says she told me this sometime before the present moment; he died 20 years ago.
    #3 (as corrected to be the same as #4) says that at the time she made the statement, he'd been dead for 20 years. "Ago" would be correct only if she were directly quoted: She told me, "He died twenty years ago."
     
  3. alexandra-paris

    alexandra-paris Junior Member

    Paris
    français-France
    Ouah, thank you very much for your detailed explanation, that's very helpful.
    It's quite difficult to understand for me but I think I begin to figure it out.

    So to make sure... :

    The idea is that he died in 1993, so If I understand rightly your comment, this option is correct ?
    And is there a difference, in meaning, with your other example (direct quote) :
    ?


    Yes this is the idea, but I think it is similar, in meaning, to sentence n°2, above or am I wrong ?
    In every case, we understand that the person passed out in 1993, right or not... ?

    And a joker question : why did you correct "ago" in sentence n°3 ("She told me he had been dead twenty years ago") : is it because past perfect is not used with "ago" or another reason ?

    Thank you again for your insights !
     
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2013
  4. Parla Senior Member

    New York City
    English - US
    Yes, with #2, I'd conclude that he died in 1993. (We're simplifying here for the sake of discussion, and talking in terms of whole years. Actually, of course, he might have died in, say, November or December of 1992; I'd still call that "20 years ago".)

    You wonder what I'd conclude from: She told me, "He died 20 years ago." That would depend when she said it. If she said it to me yesterday, I'd conclude that he died early in 1993. If she said it to me five years ago, then I'd think he died in 1988.

    Because "ago" was wrong with the past perfect. It would have to be EITHER: She told me he had been dead for 20 years. OR: She told me he had died 20 years before. (That is, 20 years before the time she made that statement.)
     
  5. alexandra-paris

    alexandra-paris Junior Member

    Paris
    français-France
    Thank you very much Parla, you're wonderful !
    Your explanation confirms what I thought about past perfect.

    In the meantime, I have found in my grammar book by Raymond Murphy, that "the past simple can usually stay the same in reported speech ou be changed into past perfect". Both seem to be correct (except with "for" or "ago" as seen above).
     
  6. alexandra-paris

    alexandra-paris Junior Member

    Paris
    français-France
    Oh... a new case (preterite/past perfect) has come up today... and I still have a last doubt...
    The sentence was :
    "He came across a picture of her that had been taken two days ago"
    And I have corrected it into : "He came across a picture of her that was taken two days ago" (or simply "a picture of her taken two days ago")
    (according to the rule that you cant' use past perfect with "ago")

    Could you tell if my correction is right please ?
    Many thanks in advance !
     
  7. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    Your new sentences are both correct English. However, the change of tense has changed the meaning.
    To keep the meaning, you need to keep the past perfect, and correct 'ago' to 'before' (as indicated by Parla).
    Instead of 'before' you could alternatively use 'earlier' or 'previously'.
     
  8. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    UK
    English - England
    I don't see anything wrong with this - as always, context is everything.

    A: "I told her that the suspect said that he had been living with her father 20 years ago. She told me [that] the suspect was lying; her father had been dead twenty years ago."

    i.e. her father had died more than 20 years ago.
     
  9. alexandra-paris

    alexandra-paris Junior Member

    Paris
    français-France
    Thank you Wandle for your answer. Could you please give me more details about this "change of meaning" you mention : how do you understand my second sentence : "He came across a picture of her that was taken two days ago" (or simply "a picture of her taken two days ago") ?
    To me, it means that someone took a picture of this girl 2 days ago and a man ("He") found this picture a bit later, 2 days after actually.
     
  10. alexandra-paris

    alexandra-paris Junior Member

    Paris
    français-France
    Ouh... I'm really confused now..., as you talk about finished and definite periods of time in the past here... (it should be past simple to me...).
    i.e : "The past simple is used to refer to finished periods or moments of time. It refers to a definite past. Thus, it is often used with time adverbials such as last night, some time ago, in 1985, earlier today, at six o clock this morning, the last time, the first time, etc." (source : http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/learnitv210.shtml)
     
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2013
  11. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    'Two days ago' is counting back from the time the words are spoken.
    'Two days before' is counting back from some other point of time.

    Suppose that on Sunday Bill came across a picture of Sarah, and that on Monday Jane is talking about it.

    If she says, "He came across a picture of her that was taken two days ago", then she means the picture was taken on Saturday (two days before Monday).

    If she says, "He came across a picture of her that had been taken two days before", then she means the picture was taken on Friday (two days before Sunday).
     
  12. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    All this can apply equally well to the past perfect.
    The only difference is that the past perfect refers to a time in the past which is earlier than some other time in the past.
     
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2013
  13. alexandra-paris

    alexandra-paris Junior Member

    Paris
    français-France
    Thank you very much, it makes sense to me. However I notice that you don't use "ago" (replaced by "before") with the past perfect so can I conclude that they cannot be used together as Parla said earlier?
     
  14. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    That is not a valid rule.
    In post 8, PaulQ has provided a context in which 'ago' is used with the past perfect.
    That example is correct (though it is not what I would put before a learner at your stage).
    If you work out the time references of PaulQ's example, you will see that 'ago' in that case is still counting back from the time the words were spoken.

    The correct rule is:

    '[A certain time] ago' is counting back from the time the words are spoken.
    '[A certain time] before' is counting back from some other point of time.
     
  15. alexandra-paris

    alexandra-paris Junior Member

    Paris
    français-France
    Ok thanks, so what Parla said above about "ago" and past perfect... was wrong ?
    and this sentence "She told me he had been dead twenty years ago" is right, as PaulQ said ?
    and it is also correct to write : "He came across a picture of her that had been taken two days ago" in this case ?
    Both counting back from the time the words are spoken
    Just to make sure I get it...
     
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2013
  16. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    It is not valid as a universal rule.
    It is correct within the context provided by PaulQ in post 8.
    This would be correct if you gave it a context of the same kind as PaulQ's in post 8.

    The most important thing to remember is that 'ago' is self-referential.
    In other words, it works like 'here' and 'now': it refers back to the speaker.
    These words are identifying a point in space or time which is defined as the point occupied by the speaker of the words.
     
  17. alexandra-paris

    alexandra-paris Junior Member

    Paris
    français-France
    Ok, thanks again for your time... :) I'm not sure but... if I understand rightly there's nothing wrong grammatically with :
    "He came across a picture of her that had been taken two days ago".
    It's just a matter of meaning (the speaker means 2 days earlier from the time he spoke).

    If this sentence is in a short story, I suppose this is the same (there's no "speaker" in this case, it's just a narrative) ?
     
  18. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    It only works if it has the precisely correct context.
    Nineteen times out of twenty, or ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the above sentence will be the wrong choice.
    In other words, you normally use 'before' or 'earlier' or 'previously' in that sentence. It is possible to construct an exceptional context to make it work with 'ago', but that will be a very rare occurrence in practice.
    'Ago' always refers back to the speaker.
    'Ago' always refers back to the speaker (or writer, if the writer is addressing the reader directly, as I do now).
    If there is no speaker (or if the writer is not directly addressing the reader), then you cannot use 'ago'. You must use 'earlier', 'previously', 'before' or similar.
     
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2013
  19. alexandra-paris

    alexandra-paris Junior Member

    Paris
    français-France
    ok thank you very much for your patience with me :)
    I'm going to need more practice to use properly this tense with "ago"...
     

Share This Page