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Using the correct tense in indirect speech

Posted by Manjusha

When the reporting verb is in the past tense, the verbs used in the direct speech are usually moved one tense back. That means the simple present tense in the direct speech will become simple past tense in the indirect speech. In the same way, the present perfect tense will become past perfect tense. Other tenses, too, undergo similar changes.

This happens because when we report events there is usually a change of place and time.

Study the examples given below.

    Susan said: ‘I shall / will finish this report by Tuesday.’

    Susan said that she would finish that report by Tuesday. (NOT Susan said that she should finish that report by Tuesday.)

Note the use of would in the reported speech. Should is not possible in this case because it shows obligation.

    John said: ‘You look tired. You should get some rest.’

    John told her that she looked tired and should get some rest.

The same idea can also be expressed using a to-infinitive.

    John advised her to get some rest.

Note that the modals would, should, could and might do not have past forms.

    ‘Are you going to the market? Could you get me some soaps and shampoo?’

    I asked her if she was going to the market and could get me some soaps and shampoo.

    OR I asked her to get some soaps and shampoo if she was going to the market.

Note that to report questions we use if or whether.

However, the modals can, will, shall and may have past tense forms. In indirect speech, can changes to could; will/shall changes to would and may changes to might.

    ‘I can’t open this door without a key.’

    She said that she couldn’t open that door without a key.

Ongoing situations

Sometimes a present tense in the direct speech does not change to past tense in the indirect speech. This usually happens when the present tense refers to an ongoing situation.

Study the example given below.

    ‘How did you reach here? The paths are not marked.’

    I asked her how she had reached there as the paths are not marked.

Here the fact that the paths are not marked is still true, so we can retain the present tense in this case. Note that a past tense is also possible here. It is essentially a matter of choice.

Past perfect remains past perfect

The past perfect tense in the direct speech remains past perfect tense in the indirect speech.

    ‘If you had taken my advice, you wouldn’t have suffered such huge losses.’

    I told him that if he had taken my advice, he wouldn’t have suffered such huge losses.

When we use present or future reporting verbs, the situation we are talking about has not changed and hence there is no change of tense.

Compare:

    ‘Where are you going?’

    He wants to know where you are going. (Here the reporting verb (wants) is in the present tense and hence there is no tense change.)

    He wanted to know where I was going. (Here the reporting verb is in the past tense, and hence there is a tense change.)

    ‘Did she come?’

    I don’t know if she came. (NOT I don’t know if she had come. When the reporting verb is in the present tense, there is no tense change.)

    If I get tickets for the show, I will be joining you.

    She said that if she got tickets for the show, she would be joining us. (Here the reporting verb is in the past tense.)

    She says that if she gets tickets for the show, she will be joining us.

    I will tell Mary you will be joining us if you get tickets for the show. (Here the reporting verb is in the future tense, and hence there is no tense change.)

See also

Common errors with verbs # 1
Common errors with verbs # 2
Common errors with verbs # 3
Common errors with verbs # 4
Common mistakes with pronouns - Part 2
Common errors with adjectives - part 1
Common errors with adjectives - part 2

 

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