.... saying my documents 'were' vs 'are' (reported speech: tense)

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EnglishBug

Senior Member
Chinese
I received an email from the human resource department. It told me that my documents were being processed. In a message to the human resource manager I wrote the following sentence:

"I recieved an email saying that my documents were being processed."

I am not sure if I should use "were" or "are". I know that it takes a long time to process my documents, so when I was sending the email they must still being processed. Can anyone give me some help? Thank you.
 
  • wonderwhy

    Banned
    English - NaE
    I received an email from the human resource department. It told me that my documents were being processed. In a message to the human resource manager I wrote the following sentence:

    "I recieved an email saying that my documents were being processed."

    I am not sure if I should use "were" or "are". I know that it takes a long time to process my documents, so when I was sending the email they must still being processed. Can anyone give me some help? Thank you.
    What did the original email actually say, EB? Is this an actual situation or are you making this up to ask a question?

    What your reply is is an example of reported speech. With reported speech there is an option to backshift, which means "shift one tense back". English speakers do this regularly as an indicator that we are not quoting the original speech/writing verbatim.

    It might be hekpful to all ESLs/ENLs if they stopped thinking of this change as a tense shift because what it really is is a shift in tense FORM and this shift in tense FORM has a special meaning, the one I gave above;

    English speakers do this [backshift] regularly as an indicator that we are not quoting the original speech/writing verbatim.

    In your original to us, you said,

    "It told me that my documents were being processed."

    Here, if the documents are still in the process of being processed, you could have told us,

    "It told me that my documents are being processed."

    So your reply to anyone could be,

    "I received an email saying that my documents were being processed."

    OR

    "I received an email saying that my documents are [still] being processed."

    The whole idea of language is to communicate as effectively as possible so if you want to make it clear what's going on and what is oing on is best described by using 'are', then by all means, use 'are'.
     
    Last edited:

    EnglishBug

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    Wonderwhy, thank you very much for your post. It is very helpful!

    The original email I got was ".... We received your documents on Monday. Mary is checking them. I will sign your documents by Friday if everything is correct...."

    Another question: If I am not sure whether my documents are still in the process of being processed, should "were" be preferred, or the only correct choice?
     

    wonderwhy

    Banned
    English - NaE
    Wonderwhy, thank you very much for your post. It is very helpful!

    The original email I got was ".... We received your documents on Monday. Mary is checking them. I will sign your documents by Friday if everything is correct...."

    Another question: If I am not sure whether my documents are still in the process of being processed, should "were" be preferred, or the only correct choice?
    From what you've been told, and in a practical sense, that is, what's most important to you, I would state to whoever needed to hear that the "I", whoever this "I" is, told you he/she would sign off on them by Friday.

    Either 'were being processed' or 'are being processed' would be processed by a native speaker as 'are being processed' but I would use 'are', as probably most native speakers would, and I would point up that Friday was given/has been given as the probable deadline for approval.


    Once more just to reiterate and clarify:

    The change in tense that occurs in situations like this one is NOT an actual change in tense, as in,

    I'm going to the store. --> [one hour later] I went to the store.

    That change in tense signifies that an actual event happened and it is now finished, hence the shift to 'went'.

    In reported speech, the tense shift, called a backshift is done ONLY to mark the speech as reported.

    It does NOT signify that an action has been completed.
     
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