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Do tenses in a time clause never back-shift in reported speech?

For example, does "I went to Italy when I finished school." become "She said she had gone to Spain when she finished school." and "I will go to Italy when I finish school." becomes "She said she would go to Italy when she finishes school."?

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I'm not sure what you are trying to ask. Are you asking if went goes to had gone in reported speech? –  Matt Эллен Apr 26 '13 at 21:05
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closed as not a real question by MετάEd, Matt Эллен, tchrist, MrHen, Hellion Apr 29 '13 at 19:17

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4 Answers

The reporting has no influence on the tense. Imagine this conversation:

"She went to Spain when she finished school."

"Did she say that herself?"

"Yes. She said she went to Spain when she finished school."

Perfectly natural.

Now let me amplify a bit:

When thinking about this situation, one might think of "reported speech" as if a reporter were in fact reporting it, thus:

TV Reporter: "In Washington today, the Senator said she went to Spain when she finished school."

TV Anchorperson: "Can you confirm that's what she said?"

TV Reporter: "Yes. She said, 'I went to Spain when I finished school'."

Again, no change in tense.

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It is not correct to say that the tense of the verb in a reported time clause never changes. It depends on whether the action or state in the time-clause is still true at the time of reporting.

As an example of no tense change, imagine that Person A, three months ago, said to person B: "I will go to Italy when I finish school".

If Person A is still at school, then Person B will typically report this to Person C as:

  • She said she'll go to Italy when she finishes school.

If, however, Person A left school one month ago, then Person B would most likely report the statement to Person C as:

  • She said she would go to Italy when she finished school.

If Person B used the present tense here, it would imply that Person A is still at school. The same principle applies in other tenses. Example: Person A says to John: "I'll call you back as soon as I've spoken to Maria."

If Person B knows that Person A has not yet spoken to John, then he or she would typically report this to person C as:

  • She said she will call John back as soon as she has spoken to Maria.

If, on the other hand, Person B knows that Person A has now spoken to John, then he or she would report this to person C as:

  • She said she would call John back as soon as she had spoken to Maria.

backshifting the tense in the time clause from the present to the past perfect.

So, in summary, it is not true to say that tenses in time clauses never back-shift in reported speech. It depends on how the reporter wishes to convey the current validity of what was said to him or her.

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+1 Correct, and I'm glad you added this important clarification and expansion. Note that I said "the reporting has no influence on the tense." I didn't say they never shift. What influences the tense, as you point out, is the current validity (or circumstances) of the original statement, such that the report may (but does not necessarily always have to) take into account the change as well as the initial statement. –  John M. Landsberg Apr 28 '13 at 8:55
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The answer is no, tenses do not shift in reported speech. This conversation would be perfectly natural. Imagine 3 people involved in the conversation and the person sitting furthest away from me doesn't hear my initial statement:

Me (Matt): "I went to Italy after I finished school."
Person 1: "What did Matt say?"
Person 2: "He said he went to Italy after he finished school."
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The first sentence is very unnatural english, and you have an illogical discrepancy of time between the two clauses, i.e., had gone and finished. British English is comfortable with simple past for this kind of reported speech. The second construct is more difficult because we need to know whether she has finished school or not. It is okay to keep the present tense in the second clause if it is still in the future i.e. she is still at school. If it is in the past, the tense shift is required, and the past perfect could be used if she hadn't gone to Italy.

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What if in the sentence "She said she had gone to Spain when she finished school," the statement indicates there was some doubt as to whether she had gone to Spain or to Portugal? In other words, "She 'said' she had gone to Spain when she finished school [,when in fact she had gone instead to Portugal]. –  rhetorician Apr 26 '13 at 20:01
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