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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

Verb-tense agreement for a quote that is still true

Sequence of tenses requires us to use, for example, past tense if the verb in the introductory clause is in the past tense. For example:

All the members of the survey team said: “You have a beautiful library!”

All the members of the survey team happily acknowledged that we had a beautiful library.


This holds true if the quote is a universal truth, quite obviously. But, what if the physical situation talked about in the quotation still holds true? For Example:

Ring Ring.

Sarah: Hello!

Sarah: Yes this is she.

Sarah: Oh really!

Sarah: Well, your ring awoke us.

Sarah: No, I have no laundry outside.

Sarah: Thanks, Bye!

Jeff: Who was it?

Sarah: it was Betty.

Jeff: What did she say?

Sarah: She said that it was raining / it is raining. (Now, here the logical sequence does not follow the grammatical sequence,)


The survey team said about Plymouth High School, “They have a beautiful library.” (in March 2012)

Subsequently talking to the principal of Plymouth school, Saba told her that the committee commented that (you had a beautiful library / you have a beautiful library). (May 2012, and the situation still holds true).

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If the statement still holds true you have a choice: you can still follow the sequence of tenses, or you can you can use a present tense. In the raining example we might well use a present tense to stress the fact that it is still raining.

But remember you also need to change pronouns -"Saba told her that the committee commented that they (or the school) had a beautiful library / have a beautiful library."

By the way, very few people would answer the phone - "This is she", perhaps "Hello, this is Betty" or "Hello, Betty speaking"

Warsaw Will Nov-05-2012

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It's not relevant that the situation still exists. Her statement was in the past and that's where it has to stay - all of it.

Hey Will, it's time we agreed on something.

Skeeter Lewis Nov-05-2012

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@Skeeter Lewis - Check before you click, and we might occasionally agree on things. It is absolutely relevant that the situation still exists, as virtually any source on reported speech would have told you. Note - In TEFL and ESL we usually refer to sequence of tenses as backshifting.

"Optional Backshifting - When the verb of speech introducing the indirect speech is in a past tense (simple, progressive or perfect), and the situation reported is still true at the moment of speaking, we can, but do not have to, backshift" -

"Backshift of Simple Present is optional if the situation is still unchanged or if you agree with the original speaker." -

"If somebody talked about a situation that has still not changed ... a reporter can often choose whether to to keep the original speaker's tenses or change them. Both structures are common" - Practical English Usage - Michael Swan (Oxford)

"As we saw earlier, when we have a reporting verb in a past tense, the tense of the idea being reported is usually backshifted (goes back one). But if the idea is still true, we can use a present tense instead." - Warsaw Will -

@Kamran - I should have added that if you don't believe what the other person has said, keep it in the past - "She said she was ill, but I don't believe her."

Warsaw Will Nov-05-2012

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@Skeeter Lewis - sorry, that sounded a bit more hectoring than I meant it to be. In any case I seem to remember agreeing with you quite a bit when you started. :) :)

Warsaw Will Nov-05-2012

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I'm not sure I agree with the notion that the backshift is optional with situations that have not changed (I assume that by "not changed" we're talking about situations that are still true today). I would think that in at least some cases, there should be no backshift. For example, I have no electricity after hurricane Sandy. I'm staying at a friend's house. Let's say one of my neighbors called to say that the power's back on. I would say "That was Steve. He said that we now have power." If instead, I said "That was Steve. He said that we had power.", I'm quite sure my wife would say, "HAD power? Gee, what happened to it???" Interestingly, I see a problem with has/had, but not so much with is/was. "One of my neighbors called to say that the power was back on." doesn't bother me nearly as much.

porsche Nov-05-2012

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On Porter's lyrics, I think was merely to maintain a rhyme with word that has a similar meaning. However, I object to transportation and documentation being used in place of transport and document. I would rarely use transport as a noun and documentation I would expect to be used in this sense: "Our documentation of the animals is important to the biology community". I agree it should not be used in place of documents. Does anyone know the level synonymity of the words mind and mentality and reason and rationality because that would help greatly?

Jasper Nov-06-2012

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@porsche - First of all, all the best in your difficult situation, and I hope everything gets back to normal for you as quickly as possible.

"Sequence of Tenses" is not a term I've come across in TEFL materials, so I've been investigating it a bit. There seem to be two approaches - "natural sequence" and "attracted sequence" and the merits of each have been hotly debated for over 200 years.

As I understand it, natural sequence would allow for or even prefer your example "That was Steve. He said that we now have power.", but attracted sequence would insist on the use of past tenses. I think this is mainly a problem in formal writing rather than in everyday conversation, and the followers of the attracted version seem to have to go through hula-hoops to avoid exactly the sort of situation you've just described.

There's a piece on it at MWDEU, which gives the preferred "natural" example - "The Lone Ranger said that crime doesn't pay" as opposed to the attracted version - "The Lone Ranger said that crime didn't pay". Wikipedia call "Batman said that he needs a special key for the Batmobile." a proper sentence by the rules of natural sequence, I think suggesting that the followers of natural sequence would consider it better than if a past tense had been used.

EFL/ESL seems to sit on the fence a bit, allowing both, as can be seen in the examples I quoted earlier on.

You bring up another interesting point which may possibly be a difference between AmE and BrE: if Steve had actually said "We had power" - we would teach students to backshift that to "Steve said that we had had power", which might lessen the confusion a bit. But I don't know if Past perfect is used as much in the States as over here.

Warsaw Will Nov-06-2012

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You don't need to backshift with universal truths, e.g. "Copernicus said that the earth revolves around the sun."
The phrase 'sequence of tenses' is the standard term. Fowler described the use of the past in such cases as, "She said we didn't have power," as 'normal' and the use of the present in, "She said we don't have power" as 'vivid'.

Skeeter Lewis Nov-06-2012

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@Skeeter Lewis - Hi. Although Sequence of tenses may be the standard term in traditional grammar, it's not one that's used much in my field, which is EFL/ESL. Probably the most popular British EFL reference guide, Practical English Usage, by Michael Swan (Oxford) , doesn't even list it in the index, and I can't remember ever having come across it in EFL course materials or grammar books. Instead we cover the same ground in several different ways - tenses in reported speech, tenses in conditionals and future time clauses, future in the past etc.

By the way, "The New Fowler's" also says (under reported speech) - "A change of tense is often involved". But as far as I can see in your first comment, you were saying that a change of tense was always necessary (except, now, for universal truths). Maybe I misunderstood.

Since this correspondence started I've been investigating the subject somewhat and there's not a lot about sequence of tenses on the net either, and what there is is a little confused. But I've found several other commentators (as well as the ones I listed above) who allow the present to be used for situations that are still true, for example:

"Backshift . . . is optional when what was said applies equally at the time of reporting - 'Benjamin said that he is/was coming over to watch television tonight.' ..." (Tom McArthur, Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 2005)

"A shift is not necessary if: the speaker is reporting something that is still true.
'Fred said he drives/drove a 1956 Belchfire Special.' "
(Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English: A Course Book and Reference Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2008)

So I'm sticking by my original comment; in the example given, we have a choice. On a lighter note, I also found this anecdote from the editor of the Wichita Eagle, courtesy of a journalism school:

“A man called the newspaper to say how upset he was about the Sunday story, 'Zoo swings into action to fix swaying bridge.' The call was from the man who fell from the bridge when it first opened. He said he was upset that the writer said he had a prosthetic arm. He is a veteran and still has that prosthetic arm. He wanted to know who her editors were and why she didn't check her facts. He was cussing a lot and threatened to cancel his subscription."

And the school comments - 'So, please note: “He said he has a prosthetic arm” is perfectly OK because we certainly don't want to lose subscribers. Seriously, the lesson here is to use common sense, which should always prevail.'

Incidentally, on the subject of tenses, I would have written - "He said he was upset that the writer had said he had a prosthetic arm", but never mind.

Warsaw Will Nov-09-2012

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You're right, Will. Many authorities acknowledge backshifting, as I noted.
It's just that it seems to defy logic. Perhaps it was an idiomatic use that has gained acceptance.

Skeeter Lewis Nov-10-2012

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Thanks guys! For the illumination.
I think it depends on the situation you are talking about. for instance, in academic writing or in tests where the connection to the reality is not considered it should always be "follow the sequence" way; while in real-life situations--like in a conversation--you should follow the logical sequence, because , otherwise, the statement would become awkward. And, if you are writing a letter to the principal (of my example), where you are not sure if the good library still exists or not (you might get a response: "We closed the library to cut annual expenses") it is better to follow the sequence of tenses.

Kamran Saif Qureshi Nov-11-2012

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And yes, Warsaw, I agree that very few people would answer the phone "Yes, this is she," but what if it were:
Sara: Hello
Natasha: is it Sara speaking?
Sara: yes, it is Sara.
Nat: Is it really she?
Sara: yes it is really she.

Kamran Saif Qureshi Nov-11-2012

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@Kamran - my version would go something like:
Sara: Hello
Natasha: Is that Sara?
Sara: Yes, this is Sara (speaking).
Nat: Is that really you, Sara?
Sara: Yes, this really is me / Yes, of course it's me. Why wouldn't it be?

NB I think usually only the person talking says "speaking". And note how we use "this" and "that" and "you" and "me" rather than talking in the third person.

@Skeeter Lewis - there you are; we're agreed on something.

Just to confirm, backshifting is when we DO go back a tense,eg: "She said it was raining". If I say "She said it's raining", there's no backshifting, because I'm reporting in the same tense as the original direct speech. Backshifting includes the whole gamut of present to past, past simple (and present perfect) to past perfect, can to could, may to might etc:
Sara: "I wasn't able to do it, and I still can't" - Sara said that she hadn't been able to do it and that (at that time) she still couldn't".

Warsaw Will Nov-12-2012

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