Reported speech, ongoing truth. He claimed the Earth was flat.

audiolaik

Senior Member
Polish
Hello,

I have read somewhere or other (I know for sure it was a CPE grammar book) when reporting the words that we find untrue, we can use a past tense:

He claimed the Earth was flat.

Do you, native speakers, tend to follow this rule?

Thank you!
 
  • Physics Guy

    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    I do, always.

    But you can also say:

    He claims the Earth is flat.

    If you say "He claims the Earth was flat," it means he doesn't think the Earth is flat right now.

    If you say "He claimed the Earth is flat," it still means "He claimed the Earth was flat," but it's not as idiomatic.
     

    audiolaik

    Senior Member
    Polish
    I do, always.

    But you can also say:

    He claims the Earth is flat.

    If you say "He claims the Earth was flat," it means he doesn't think the Earth is flat right now.

    If you say "He claimed the Earth is flat," it still means "He claimed the Earth was flat," but it's not as idiomatic.
    I understand, Physics Guy! Thank you!
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    If you look back through various reported speech threads, you'll see that when the report is of someone stating an ongoing truth, or what they believe to be an ongoing truth (in this case) it is quite normal not to do the normal tense back shift.

    "The sun rises in the west."
    Panj said that the sun rises in the west.
    "The earth is flat."
    Panj said that the earth is flat.

    That's not to suggest that the backshifted form is wrong or unusual in any way, only that isometimes both forms are acceptable.
     

    audiolaik

    Senior Member
    Polish
    If you look back through various reported speech threads, you'll see that when the report is of someone stating an ongoing truth, or what they believe to be an ongoing truth (in this case) it is quite normal not to do the normal tense back shift.

    "The sun rises in the west."
    Panj said that the sun rises in the west.
    "The earth is flat."
    Panj said that the earth is flat.

    That's not to suggest that the backshifted form is wrong or unusual in any way, only that isometimes both forms are acceptable.
    I take your point, yet the spot of bother is the theory I came across in a grammar book. It says that if we do not believe the speaker, we use a past tense.
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    Let me muddle this up a bit.

    Yesterday: Political candidate stated, "I am the best."
    Reporting her speech, today: (a) Yesterday, she claimed she is the best. (b) Yesterday, she claimed she was the best.

    (a) This is how the statement would commonly be reported.
    (b) Whether one agrees with or does not believe the speaker, this would sound odd.


    Small aside: If you are going to use mystical abbreviations such as "CPE", please explain what they mean.
     

    gaer

    Senior Member
    US-English
    I hope I am not muddling things up more…
    Yesterday: Political candidate stated, "I am the best."
    Reporting her speech, today: (a) Yesterday, she claimed she is the best. (b) Yesterday, she claimed she was the best.
    I see a problem here. Think of a tennis star, currently number one in the world:

    Yesterday she said, "I am the best."

    Changing to the same idea, reported:

    1) Yesterday she said that she is the best.
    2) Yesterday she said that she was the best.

    In this case I believe that both choices are correct, but we would probably pick the first to emphasize that what is reported is true NOW.

    Now think of tennis star who was number one in the world in the past (Martina Navratilova):

    Yesterday she said, "I was the best."

    Changing to the same idea, reported:

    2) Yesterday she said that she was the best.

    Now only number two is possible, because the statement refers to something that WAS true but no longer is.

    I think that perhaps audiolaik's book was hinting at the problem I just mentioned. However, if this is the case, it is explaining the problem in a very confusing manner.

    Gaer
     

    audiolaik

    Senior Member
    Polish
    Now think of tennis star who was number one in the world in the past (Martina Navratilova):

    Yesterday she said, "I was the best."

    Changing to the same idea, reported:

    2) Yesterday she said that she was the best.
    Just out of curiosity: would it be possible to use the past perfect tense?

    Yesterday she said that she had been the best.
     

    gaer

    Senior Member
    US-English
    Just out of curiosity: would it be possible to use the past perfect tense?

    Yesterday she said that she had been the best.
    Many things are possible, but I would not choose your suggestion. It sounds very awkward to me.

    Let's get to the bottom of your main question first. :)
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    the spot of bother is the theory I came across in a grammar book. It says that if we do not believe the speaker, we use a past tense.
    Your grammar book's comment makes sense to me, audio.

    I see this as just the normal reported speech rules in operation.

    As panj said, we allow he said + present if the reference is to something which is a universal truth or still true at the time of speaking.

    But I'd argue that if we don't believe what the person said, we don't treat it as true. So we don't use the present tense.

    I'll listen to myself carefully for the next few days, but I think the theory works for me.
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    Thanks Gaer. You helped underline just why I think the grammar book "rule" is not useful. My example of the political candidate showed an assertion by a person, stated yesterday—from our own viewpoint—and reported today. Yesterday that person made a statement we may or may not agree with, and it refers to yesterday, today, and the foreseeable future. Such are the utterings of political creatures.

    Your Navratilova example tells me that yesterday, again, from our current standpoint,
    an athlete said something that referred to a time long past. There is no question of use of the present tense by the person speaking yesterday. Because the speaker was talking about the past, whether or not we believe the statement, we must report it as referring to the past.

    X_______________X____________________X________________>
    Now...................Statement made..............Time referenced
    Reported


    El Gaer said:
    Now think of tennis star who was number one in the world in the past (Martina Navratilova):

    Yesterday she said, "I was the best."

    Changing to the same idea, reported:

    2) Yesterday she said that she was the best.

    Now only number two is possible, because the statement refers to something that WAS true but no longer is.
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    First, I don't think it's a 'rule'. It may be a valid observation about a tendency followed
    some or even most of the time by some speakers. Second, it doesn't seem to account for some ordinary circumstances. Take, for a live example, the U.S. campaign for nomination to be a presidential candidate.

    Fact: One of the candidates has recently spoken words similar to, "Twenty-two hundred delegate votes are required to win the nomination."

    Those who agree with this candidate are likely to report the statement as follows: "The candidate said that twenty-two hundred votes are required to win." Those who disagree, and find the statement to be total and absolute malarky are apt to say, "The candidate said that twenty-two hundred votes are required to win. This is absolute nonsense!"

    Neither those who believe and agree with the statement, nor those who think it is codswallop are going to use the past tense other than for "said". Although the statement was made a few days ago, it refers to an ongoing condition. Whether one
    believes the statement or not, the present tense is required.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    First, I don't think it's a 'rule'. It may be a valid observation about a tendency followed
    some or even most of the time by some speakers.
    I can agree with this in nice normal-size letters.

    Neither those who believe and agree with the statement, nor those who think it is codswallop are going to use the past tense other than for "said". Although the statement was made a few days ago, it refers to an ongoing condition. Whether one
    believes the statement or not, the present tense is required.
    I think I'd use the past tense "were". Eeek.
     

    gaer

    Senior Member
    US-English
    Let's start with the sentence in the title:

    He claimed the earth was flat.

    I can't see any other choice for that sentence unless we are talking about someone in the Flat Earth Society. ;)

    Now, IF I talked to someone from the Flat Earth Society, this would be quite possible:

    I talked to someone in the FES last yesterday, and he claimed the earth was flat.

    This could mean that he claimed that and still would claim it today. I can't live with "claims" in the above sentence.

    But this says the same thing, doesn't it?

    I talked to some in the FES yesterday who claimed the earth was flat.

    And now I feel completely comfortable changing tense:

    I talked to someone in the FES yesterday who claims the earth is flat.

    This is the essential problem, the elephant in the room. When we talk of something that someone said in the past that continues to be true now, choice of past or present tense is extremely fuzzy. I would not even like to think about the problem of creating rules to cover the adjustments we make, purely by feel.

    Now, let's look at Cuchu's sentence:
    Cuchuflete said:
    Fact: One of the candidates has recently spoken words similar to, "Twenty-two hundred delegate votes are required to win the nomination."
    This seems perfectly clear:

    1) One of the candidates told me that twenty-two hundred delegate votes are required to win the nomination.

    But what about this:

    2) One of the candidates told me that twenty-two hundred delegate votes were required to win the nomination.

    I prefer sentence one. I would not rule out sentence two, but I think sentence one is much clearer, for the same reasons that Cuchu gave. There is a chance of misunderstanding sentence two, out of context.

    My conclusion: rules may make the whole problem worse. At best they are only going to cover SOME possible problems.

    Gaer
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top