What does the sentence:

It can't have been her you saw yesterday: she is abroad.

become in indirect reported speech?

He told me it…

can't have been (?)

couldn't have been (?)

… her I had seen the previous day because she was abroad.

3 Answers 3


'Can' changes to 'could', when you convert somthing to indirect speech. Since can't is 'can not', you'd say couldn't in indirect speech.

He told me it couldn't have been her I had seen in the street the previous day because she was abroad.

Similarly, won't changes to wouldn't.

  • OK, since "It must be her: no one dresses so outrageously." becomes "He told me it must be her because no one dressed so outrageously." without a change of "must" to "had to" as it is a case of logical deduction, I wondered whether the same applied to "can't".
    – user58319
    Mar 4, 2014 at 13:32
  • @user58319 Actually, I see nothing wrong in using 'had to' in the example you've given. Where does it say that using 'had to' is incorrect? Because as far as I recall, must changes to had to in indirect speech (and sounds a bit better, too). Mar 4, 2014 at 13:49
  • There is the possibility that is remains is in the indirect report...
    – GEdgar
    Mar 4, 2014 at 15:14
  • @GEdgar Yeah, that's when the quote mentions something that is always true. Like: He said, "The earth is round." becomes He said that the earth is round. Mar 4, 2014 at 15:53

Indirectly, 'Richard said that it couldn't have been her that you saw yesterday', or in direct speech:

'Richard exclaimed "It can't have been her you saw yesterday".'


Both alternatives are perfectly valid. It simply depends on the emphasis the (later, reporting) speaker wants to convey.

That's to say if the reporter is particularly interested in the fact that the original speaker thought that at the time (or is misguidedly influenced by pedantic grammarians' "rules" which conflict with natural usage), he'll use couldn't have been.

If, on the other hand, the reporter is concerned with the implications of that earlier assertion for the current situation, he can quite naturally (and correctly/grammatically) use can't have been.

This principle can equally be applied to the supplementary justification, which would normally be adjusted to agree more with the initial verb form (couldn't have been ... she was abroad, or can't have been ... she is abroad), unless it's known that she's no longer abroad.

Note related usages such as “He didn't know where New Jersey was”, previously covered on ELU.

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