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I am uncertain about selecting the correct verb form in a clause indicating indirect reported speech. The problematic sentence is:

I didn't expect that you would say that XXX.

For the XXX part, would it be better advised to put " you wanted to play baseball" " you would want play baseball" or " You want to play baseball", or something else ?

Which factors would guide the choice?

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I didn't expect that you would say that you wanted to play baseball. –  Jim Dec 24 '12 at 5:25
    
+1. I can’t imagine any context in which that would be inappropriate. It follows the basic guidance that when the verb in direct speech is in the present tense (‘want’), unless there are exceptional circumstances, it becomes past tense in reported speech (‘wanted’). –  Barrie England Dec 24 '12 at 7:58

2 Answers 2

This is not so much about would as it is about say. In so-called reported speech, there are two ways of choosing verb tense: in tense harmony with the tense of the main verb of the sentence, or following the usual tense rules. So both of these are equally valid:

  1. I didn’t expect that you would say that you wanted to play baseball.

  2. I didn’t expect that you would say that you want to play baseball.

#1 has wanted in harmony with didn’t; #2 has want standing on its own.

Here’s a simpler example:

Dan said he wasn’t going.

Dan said he isn’t going.

Both of these can mean that he said “I’m not going”. The difference is mainly a matter of style: most speakers prefer tense harmony, many freely alternate between the two styles, and some insist that harmony is illogical and should be avoided.

Tense harmony occurs in a few other situations as well. If you hadn’t realised until just now that it’s very late, you might say either of these:

  1. I didn’t realise how late it was.

  2. I didn’t realise how late it is.

#1 can be used when talking about the present or the past. #2 can only refer to the present.

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The verb say, when introducing indirect reported speech, takes as its complement a finite clause introduced by that. That much is clear. What is tricky is selecting a verb form which best fits the situation. The choices are:

  1. present tense form
  2. preterite form
  3. would + base form

As another respondent points out, the preterite form can be used to talk about something which was true at the reference time, but may or may not be true presently. The present tense form can only be used for something which was true at the reference time, and is still true now.

A key issue is that preterite forms of verbs in English have two main functions.

  1. Indicating past time
  2. Indicating modality

If you say:

I didn't think that you would say that you wanted to play baseball.

The preterite form want is being used to show irrealis modality (to discuss a situation which is in doubt or contrary to fact). On the other hand, if you say:

You said that you wanted to play baseball.

The preterite form of want is used to show past time. What triggers the modal interpretation in the reported speech clause is the phrase I didn't think that... in the first matrix clause (the one whose main verb is think). This sets up the second matrix clause (the one whose inflected verb is would) to have a modal preterite auxiliary verb.

The sentence which has two would 's sounds a bit weird, firstly because there are two would 's in a row, and second because it is hard to decide whether the second would is being used (redundantly) for modality, or for tense matching.

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