Should I use present tense in reported speech? I have both sentences and not sure which one is correct:

  • (1) Peter mentioned that the formula A is based on formula B.
  • (2) Peter mentioned that the formula A was based on formula B.

Should I use present tense here as it is a fact (always)? However, it also makes sense by using past tense in reporting speech. Also, can the "that" be omitted?



2 Answers 2

  1. Use the present if what Peter was trying to convey is about something being true in general or persistently (regardless of whether that something is in fact true in general...).

    This example is clearer, I think: Peter said the sky is blue -- vs -- Peter said the western sky was a particularly bright orange when the sun hit the horizon that evening.

  2. Yes, you can remove that "that". But the sentence can be easier to understand, esp. by some non-native English speakers, if you leave it in. And esp. since you do not use "the formula B" here, you can say "... that formula A is based on formula B."

Take time and tense out of the question, to see what it means to make a general (and atemporal) statement (which one can make at any point in time). And no, quotation need not be involved either.

  • Water is a colorless, transparent liquid. [general statement about the nature of water]

  • The water in my glass is cloudy and brown. [specific statement about this water]

  • Peter explained that water is a colorless, transparent liquid.

  • Peter told the waiter that the water in his glass was cloudy and brown.

It is correct to say either of these:

  • Ptolemy claimed that the Earth is at the center of the [solar] system.
  • Ptolemy claimed that the Earth was at the center of the [solar] system.

They both say that Ptolemy made a general statement. Neither is incorrect. The former emphasizes the generality of what was claimed (including its abstraction from time). The latter emphasizes the claim as historical claim: the time-limited nature of its meaning.

IOW, it all depends on what you are really trying to say. This is about logic and meaning as much as it is about language (wording).

And FWIW, I agree 100% with this post about the same topic. Both can be correct, and there can be a slightly different connotation (emphasis) if you use one or the other. Neither is "awful".

  • As a non-native English speaker, I feel "Peter said the sky is blue" sounds awful. Can you cite some well-known literature to show that it is really common in use? Thanks.
    – Stan
    Feb 25, 2014 at 4:00
  • @Stan -- Please read what I wrote. It depends on what the sentence is supposed to mean. If it talks about what Peter said about the state of the sky at some point in the past, that's one thing. If it says that Peter made a general statement about the color of the sky typically, that's another thing. And no, I am not about to search for any literature -- if you are interested in that, look yourself. I am not a linguist, nor do I play one on Stack Exchange. ;-) Others are free to correct or disagree with my take on this.
    – Drew
    Feb 25, 2014 at 14:41
  • Hmm I see, thanks all the same. The link in F.E.'s comment is interesting and comprehensive, maybe you also would like to read it :)
    – Stan
    Feb 25, 2014 at 14:49
  • @Stan: Yes, I agree with what F.E. wrote.
    – Drew
    Feb 25, 2014 at 15:43

'Peter said that the sky was blue', but 'Peter said "the sky is blue".' Unsurprisingly, these two are often confused.

If you are reporting the words as they were said (i.e. using quotations), then use the present tense. Otherwise use the past tense.

There are some people who will make the argument that, because the sky is always blue, it is also most logical to use the present tense. I will not go so far as to inveigh against the use, but I, in addition to Stan, think that it sounds awful. As a native speaker, I like to think that my aesthetic opinion holds some weight (whether or not it actually does).

  • It is not about the sky being always blue. It is about the difference between (a) a general statement about the nature of something and (b) a specific statement about the state of something at some point in time-space. IOW, it all depends on what you are trying to communicate. -- Just one more native speaker (AE).
    – Drew
    Feb 25, 2014 at 15:35
  • Indeed. There seem to be different practices regarding this issue. From my experience, Canadian English prefers the preterite construction.
    – Anonym
    Feb 25, 2014 at 17:30

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.