Breaking the backshift rule for indirect speech [reported speech] [backshift]

JJXR

Senior Member
Russian
Hello to all,

Thanks for reading my post.


Reasoning:

The rule on reported speech says that if the reporting verb is in the past tense (in this case, 'promised'), then the past equivalent of all tenses should be used when one is reporting (will => would; arrives => arrived):

Original words: 'I will let you know when John arrives.'
Reported speech: 'He promised that he would let me know when John arrived.'

However, I've seen and heard this rule broken on numerous occassions. The speaker breaks the rule when he/she wants to emphasize that the words being reported are relevant to present or future time. On the other hand, I have noticed that this rule tends to be broken only with certain types of verbs such as [group #1] said, told, announced, promised, etc., whereas verbs such as [group #2] thought, saw, felt, realized, knew, hoped, etc., are followed by the past tense in reported speech.

There is a significant difference between the two above mentioned groups:

Verbs in group #1 imply that the speaker reports some information that was earlier made known to others by the speaker or another person (words were spoken).

Verbs in group #2 imply that a mental process occurred in a person's mind. The information related to that process was unknown to anyone but the person in whose mind that process occurred (no words were spoken).

Sample sentences:

Let's consider two verbs 'told' [group #1] and 'knew' [group #2]:

1. John told us yesterday that he will call us when he arrives today.

2. John told us yesterday that he would call us when he arrived today.

3. We knew yesterday that John will call us when he arrives today.

4. We knew yesterday that John would call us when he arrived today.

Conclusion:

Sentence #3 is unacceptable, while the rest of the sentences are acceptable English usage. Sentences #2 and #4 should be used in formal speech and writing. Sentence #1 is acceptable in casual conversation.

I have asked a lot of native speakers for their opinion on this. AE speakers feel pretty comfortable breaking the rule for indirect speech with verbs in group #1, whereas BE speakers tend not to break it. As for group #2, both AE and BE speakers use past tense forms in reported speech after the verbs that belong to this group.

Question:

Does anyone share the same view regarding this observation, or is it just me?


Thanks a lot for any comments, corrections or suggestions!

Regards,
JJXR
 
  • wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Does anyone share the same view regarding this observation, or is it just me?
    It is never wrong to follow the rule. I would advise against breaking it at all.

    As regards your observation, I have not noticed that myself, but it may be because when I find the rule broken, my tendency (if I pay attention to it) is to correct it in my own mind.
     

    Truffula

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    Your example sentences and your evaluation of them matches my own intuition. But I think you're overgeneralizing about groups of words. I can think of some sentences using "saw" or "realized" that would be fine without tense shifting. I'm not entirely sure that they count as "reported speech" - but I don't see how sentence 4 is reported speech, either. It's reported knowledge that may have come about via speech (but may not).

    Some examples I'm making up as I go. These seem fine:

    I realized yesterday that John will call me when he's ready.
    I knew yesterday that John's wife has cancer.
    I heard yesterday that John will arrive on October 21st.
    I saw yesterday that John will betray anyone he can.

    These seem iffy:

    I knew yesterday that Stacey will be arriving next month.
    Stacey told us yesterday that she will arrive next month.
    Yesterday I told you that you are taller than me.

    These seem wrong:
    I thought yesterday you are taller than me.
    You announced last week you will get a raise in July.
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    If you want a rule, it's this:

    It will never be wrong to backshift, whatever the verb you're using.
    However, if the condition still remains in the future (NB "today" is a poor example because it might be past, present or future) then it is often acceptable not to backshift. This applies especially to eternal truths.
    I just made that "rule" up, so it's probably wrong.

    To consider your examples, and replacing "today" with "tomorrow" to reduce the ambiguities, that gives us:

    1. John told us yesterday that he will call us when he arrives tomorrow :tick: (... and this remains true).

    2. John told us yesterday that he would call us when he arrived tomorrow :tick: (... but his plans may have changed).

    3. We knew yesterday that John will call us when he arrives tomorrow :tick: (... and we still know it).

    4. We knew yesterday that John would call us when he arrived tomorrow ? (... this seems awkward because it has knowledge conflicting with doubt.

    Plus: 5. Archimedes said that the upper bound of pi is/was 22/7. :tick:
     

    london calling

    Senior Member
    UK English
    If you want a rule, it's this:

    It will never be wrong to backshift, whatever the verb you're using.
    However, if the condition still remains in the future (NB "today" is a poor example because it might be past, present or future) then it is often acceptable not to backshift. This applies especially to eternal truths.
    I just made that "rule" up, so it's probably wrong.
    If it's wrong I'm wrong as well, because I agree with it 100%.:)
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    We often talk of only two distinct categories - direct speech and indirect/reported speech. Items with a pointing function (deixis) are changed (present tense to past tense; proximate words changed to distal words [eg 'here' to 'there', 'now' to 'then', 'tomorrow' to 'the following day']). Others have used the label 'free indirect speech' which represents an indirect category. The in-between category occurs more often in speech and in literary prose.

    I would see the backshifted versions (2, 4) as representing stereotypical reported speech style, and this is the version I tend to use myself in ordinary situations.
     
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