Today I had another English lesson and all students were instructed by teacher to ask each other few predefined questions and then to report them. I got the following questions:

  1. "What kind of computers do you have?", which I reported as "He asked me what kind of computers I have."
  2. "What music do you like?", which I reported as "She asked me what music I like."

My logic is that in these cases the situation hasn't changed in the five minutes since the question was asked (I still liked the same music and my computers still weren't stolen) and it is OK to use the present tense here.

But my teacher corrected me and insisted that I should always use past tense without any exceptions. What am I missing here?


I've checked 'English Grammar in Use' by Cambridge University. Quoting Unit 48, "Reported speech 2":

It is not always necessary to change the verb in reported speech. If you report something and the situation hasn't changed, you do not need to change the verb to the past:

direct: Paul said, 'My new job is very interesting.'

reported: Paul said that his new job is very interesting.

(The situation hasn't changed. His job is still interesting.)

You can also change the verb to the past.

Another example from the same book, "Additional Exercises, Reported Speech", 25.5:

What's your job?

How much do you earn?

Valid answers are:

He wanted to know what my job was and asked me how much I earned.

He wanted to know what my job is and asked me how much I earn.

The last example looks very similar to my own.

  • This is a possible duplicate of Tense change: previous actions on something that's currently true. Both tenses are possible, although the past tense is more common when something reported in the past is/was true both in the past and in the present. Jan 18, 2013 at 20:29
  • Do you mean Unit 47, rather than Unit 48? (Perhaps you have a more recent edition.) See also the previous Unit: Reported speech (1). It's generally safer to use the past tense. You will rarely be wrong if you do. Jan 18, 2013 at 21:48
  • @BarrieEngland, I have 3rd Edition first published 2004. I've read both units about reported speech and I understand that using past tense is safer and present tense is optional. I just need to know whether my specific answers were acceptable or not.
    – AlexD
    Jan 18, 2013 at 23:33
  • In part, the answer depends on whether the constructions occur in speech or in writing. My intuition is that the shift to the past tense is more likely to occur in writing than in speech. You might want to raise the question again with your teacher, perhaps referring to the discussion here. Jan 19, 2013 at 8:03
  • @BarrieEngland both questions and reports were made in speech.
    – AlexD
    Jan 20, 2013 at 20:10

1 Answer 1


In English reported speech the present tense in the actual words spoken becomes the past tense in the words when they’re reported. The reported forms of those two examples are ‘He asked me what kind of computers I had’ and ‘She asked me what music I liked.’ The situation has changed. The speaker reporting the speech is referring to something that was the case in the past, if only in the very recent past.

As others have said, this is not invariably so. As the authors of the ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ write:

The original speech or thoughts may have been in present tense, but past tense is usually used for the report . . . Although this use of past tense in reported speech is common, reported speech also occurs with other tenses. [The present tense emphasizes] that the circumstances expressed . . are still continuing.

But if in doubt, change present tense in direct speech to past tense in indirect speech.

  • That's not exactly true. The change is optional, and you will also see the present tense used. Cf Fowler's advice. Jan 18, 2013 at 20:27
  • 2
    @Cerberus. That may well be the case, but the OP is a foreign learner of English, and, at this stage, needs guidance on what is likely to cause the least complication. It will rarely be ungrammatical to change the present tense to the past tense in reported speech. Do you mean what Fowler says in the 'sequence of tenses' article? If so, it’s hardly conclusive. Jan 18, 2013 at 20:46
  • 1
    Fowler was just an example of the many grammarians that accept both tenses. I agree that confusion is undesirable, and that the past tense is nearly always fine; but I think saying "the past tense is probably more common, but the present tense is also used and acceptable" is simple enough for our OP to understand (he seems to be a smart guy anyway). See also his edit. Suggesting that the teacher is right and the present tense is wrong seems undesirable. Jan 18, 2013 at 20:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.