I am correcting a reported speech test. I am more than familiar with the backshifts and exceptions. However, I would need some help to see if I can accept these two reports:

  1. "We can't protect our planet if we don't stop littering."
    = She told us we couldn't protect our planet if we DON'T stop littering.

  2. "We must work harder if we want to make a difference."
    = She told him they had to work harder if they WANT to make a difference.

  • 1
    yes, you can. you can do it if the state of affairs from the original text is still relevant to the state of affairs at the time the report is made. consider the oddness of a sentence like: ??"Caesar urged his troops to cross the Rubicon if they want their campaign to be successful."
    – user31341
    Jul 19, 2013 at 2:35
  • 4
    Still, I would expect both verbs in the reported part to be the same tense, at least in formal writing, unless there were some special reason for them to be different. In these examples, the different tenses look inconsistent. Jul 19, 2013 at 5:15
  • 1
    I would expect the verb in the second phrase to be put in the past tense, since ‘their’ desire to make a difference is grounded in the time when ‘she’ was speaking to them and is limited to their particular situation—they may not want to make a difference anymore. In the first phrase, however, a past tense would make no sense: it is common knowledge that littering (on a large scale) is something the entire world still needs to stop doing in order to ‘protect the planet’, and this is not limited to the time when ‘she’ was speaking, but universally true at the time of reporting. Jul 19, 2013 at 10:16
  • 2
    @jlovegren: "Connor advised his neighbours to cross the Channel if they want a decent tan" probably doesn't warrant two question marks. There can be three time references - when the advising / urging etc took place, when the report was made, and - if recorded - when the record is being read. Jul 22, 2013 at 9:45

1 Answer 1


As this forum question states, which sites Palmer's The English Verb,

This depends on whether the statement being reported is still true for him. If it is, he may (but is not required to) retain the present tense.

Taken out of context, it is hard to be sure but it is (probably) still true, for the speaker, that we need to stop littering in order to protect the planet, which implies that the present tense is appropriate. The quote also suggests, and this seems intuitively right to me, that "correct" tense usage in reported speech does not follow very strict rules.

Maybe this indicates that exam questions on reported speech ought to provide more context?

Finally, in your example (1) the tense and structure of the first clause is also interesting, which is reporting a lack of ability. "Could" is used for both permission and ability so in a written text this would be clearer:

She told us we wouldn't be able to protect our planet if we DON'T stop littering.

  • 2
    You're right about the frequent need for test questions to provide more context. I think the OP could provide more context too. If this is an exam that she has set herself for her own beginning students and she has only taught backshift, then both verbs in the reported clause need to be in the past tense. If the students are familiar with Palmer's rule, then they could both be in the present tense. However, like Cerberus in his comment, I have a problem mixing past and present. This probably happens in natural conversation but I wouldn't accept it in a test.
    – Shoe
    Jul 20, 2013 at 11:53

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.