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The Truth about Reported Speech

26 lutego 2018, poniedziałek,

Students often have to learn loads and loads of grammar and it sometimes happens that a student will ask me a very clever and frank question; Do people really talk that? Or Do people really use this in ‘real life’? I always try to answer the question with absolute sincerity even if the answer is not ‘convenient’ to my agenda as a teacher.  The 3rd conditional, for example is extremely complex in nature and it is intimidating for students to learn. To answer the question – Do people really use the 3rd conditional – I can honestly and 100% guarantee them that this construction is extremely important in terms of discussing regrets or making excuses about the past. “If they had had enough lifeboats for everyone nobody would have died the night the Titanic sank.” Use any example from recent news to make your own 3rd conditional. (i.e./ recent election results)

© Mat Wright, British Council

So let’s talk about reported speech. Does the same level of importance and practicality apply to this mind-numbing grammar construction?

The Official Rules

Let’s say someone was talking to Tom earlier at the shopping centre and Tom said a number of things to you.  Here’s how it sounded as live speech.

“I’ve got a new job.”

“I am really enjoying it.”

“I was fired from my previous job.”

“I didn’t like that job anyway.”

Now 5 hours later you meet a mutual friend of yours and Tom’s and you begin to gossip.

“I saw Tom today and he told me that he had a new job and that he was really enjoying it.  He told me he had been fired from his previous job but that it was okay because he hadn’t really liked it anyway.”

You will notice that all of the verbs have been back-shifted to a tense in the past. Present tense becomes a past tense and a past tense becomes a past perfect tense.

This rule is quite mentally taxing for students and requires a bit of mental gymnastics and learners of English can become quickly frustrated by these rules.

“Do people really do that in real life?”


Here, the honest answer is quite tricky and it is directly related to one of my favourite values: The TRUTH.

If we have a reason to believe that what Tom said is still TRUE because of the content of the conversation OR because it was a relatively short time ago we do NOT need to backshift the tenses.

“I saw Tom today and he told me that he has a new job and that he is really enjoying it.  He told me he was fired from his previous job but that it was okay because he didn’t really like it anyway.”

Everything above is grammatical.  This principle holds true for things that would be universally true.

“Paris is a very romantic city.” Tom said that Paris is a very romantic city.
“Spaghetti is my favourite food.” Tom said that spaghetti is his favourite food.
“My dad is a barber.” Tom said that his dad is a barber.


You will see in the above examples that we do NOT have to backshift for such generally true opinions/facts.

We WOULD have to backshift the tenses if there suddenly seemed to be a discrepancy between what Tom said and the ACTUAL TRUTH.

Tom (on the phone): I am sick. I can’t come to the lesson.

Teacher hangs up the phone.

Teacher (to everyone): Tom said that he can’t come to the lesson because he is sick.

Mark: I saw him this morning at the gym running on a treadmill and laughing with everyone.

Teacher: That’s strange. He just told me he was sick.

Here the back-shifting of the tense is much more practical because we are underlining a discrepancy between what was said and what may be the reality.

“I am working as a bartender.” 4 years later

The last time I saw Tom was about 4 years ago and he told me he was working as a bartender. (It may no longer be the case.)  Saying IS would be incorrect.

“I am really sick today.” Tom frequently tells lies to get out of work.

I was talking to Tom earlier and he told me that he was sick….but you know how Tom is.

(the speaker is casting doubt on what Tom said and back-shifting the tense is  a very effective yet subtle way to do this.)

“I earn 10,000 pounds a month” Just yesterday you told Jane you earned 7,000 pounds a month. So which is it?

(The speaker has been caught lying on the spot.)


So that is how the back-shifting rule in reported speech breaks down.  Basically you really don’t have to always change the grammatical tense. You CAN keep the tenses the same as what the speaker originally used.

The only time that back-shifting is a much better option is:

  1. When a significant amount of time has passed and this effects whether or not the statement may be true.
  2. There is an immediate conflict between what the speaker said and what appears to be true.


Mind-numbing – difficult to comprehend

Taxing – challenging or demanding

Discrepancy – a lack of agreement between to facts.  If a sign in the window says a TV in the shop costs 100pln and a price tag on the TV says that it costs 200pln then there is a discrepancy in the price of the TV.