Suppose I am 20 years old. Which the following is correct?

  1. Someone asked me how old I am. I told him I am 20.
  2. Someone asked me how old I was. I told him I was 20.
  • 3
    Both are correct, although the first implies the question was asked in the recent past.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 9, 2013 at 16:19

1 Answer 1


In that particular case, the second would be the normal way of saying it. Elsewhere in indirect speech, you might find the present tense preserved.

  • 2
    I disagree with that. Both would be very common in this particular case. If you are no longer 20 (i.e., you've had a birthday since the question was asked), the latter is obviously the only possible option, but if I was carded when going to a club last night, for instance, I would say either absolutely indiscriminately (or I would if I were actually only 20). Oct 9, 2013 at 16:23
  • Perhaps a generational (and transatlantic?) difference. Oct 9, 2013 at 16:39
  • 1
    Not transatlantic, I don't think. Possibly generational, though I don't really think so either. Similarly, “Someone asked me what I do for a living, and I told him I'm a teacher” is just as natural and normal to me as, “… and I told him I was a teacher”, assuming that I am actually (still) a teacher. Oct 9, 2013 at 16:59
  • 2
    I disagree too, but for a different reason. Both the shift and the no-shift are used by people who are still of the reported age, but the messages they intend to send are different. If one is talking to their best friend, they likely will use the preterite: "Oh, but he was careful enough to ask how old I was. I told him I was 20 and put him at ease." It is the event that is of consequence here; the information about the age doesn't affect the present. On the o. h.: "Dad, now it looks they won't accept me. Even though I told them I'm 20!" Her reported age still plays a role in the present.
    – Talia Ford
    Oct 9, 2013 at 17:01
  • 1
    Okay, there's the possibility of nit-picking over whether the speaker is still 20. But that doesn't really arise with told them I am/was American/British. And I don't see any evidence of a US/UK usage split there. For British there are 53 past tense and no present tense. For American, it's 189 past tense, and less than a dozen present tense (that's even after checking for I'm American as well). So notwithstanding Janus's comment, I agree with Barrie here. Oct 9, 2013 at 20:28

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