The following is an excerpt from a textbook in Korea. I'm wondering if this is an unnecessary past tense for the reported speech--or possibly wrong.

When I moved to Korea, one of the first things my coworker taught me was how to say my address. I didn't understand why it was so important. They explained that I'd often give it over the phone when I ordered things to be delivered.

Is the past tense necessary at all? Ordering food over the phone is not a one-time event and there is all likelihood that the writer will order more food in the future--not to mention that I'd never explain it like that. (I'd just say "You'll need it when you order food.)

What do you guys think?

3 Answers 3

  • They explained [that I would often give it over the phone when I ordered things to be delivered].

Let's imagine this, that last week your coworker(s) said something like this to you:

  • "Because you will often give it over the phone when you order things to be delivered."

Now you are reporting to us (the readers) what had been said. There are two common choices:

  1. They explained [that I will often give it over the phone when I order things to be delivered].

  2. They explained [that I would often give it over the phone when I ordered things to be delivered].

In #1, the reported indirect speech has not been backshifted; while in #2 (which is the same as your original example), the reported indirect speech has been backshifted. (Note: backshifting involves replacing a present-tense verb with a preterite, which is a past-tense verb.)

Without any surrounding context--that is, just looking at those two versions alone on a white sheet of paper--both versions would seem to be grammatical. I'd think that the #2 version with the backshift would be the default, and there would have to be a specific reason why the speaker would intentionally use the #1 version (the non-backshifted version).

Backshifting in a subordinate clause can occur when either one of the following conditions is true:

  • A.) The tense of the matrix clause is a type of past-tense.

  • B.) The time of the matrix clause situation is in the past time sphere.

In your case, both of those conditions are true--the matrix clause is "They explained X", and it uses the preterite "explained" and it is about a situation that occurred in the past. And so, backshifting can occur.

In general, depending on the purpose of the sentence, there can be a preference for either the non-backshifted version or for the backshifted version. Sometimes the non-backshifted version might be considered to be "much more widely appropriate" than the backshifted version. Sometimes the backshifted version is obligatory.

For more info on backshifting, here is a related post, which also includes pointers to other related posts:

  • Excellent answer. I personally think that the simple present should be retained because the past tense causes ambiguity, i.e. you're not sure whether the state is still true or not. This link also says "we would probably retain the present tense even in the reported situation."
    – funct7
    May 23, 2014 at 4:47
  • @WoominJoshPark But that quote from your link was talking about a specific type of usage, and it also used the hedging word "probably". In general, usually the backshift is the default, and would more often be the preferred version--the more natural sounding version used by native English speakers. If you only use the non-backshifted versions, then you will end up sounding unnatural. It takes a while for the ear to figure out the tendencies, and to learn which versions are more appropriate where. For your specific example, in its context, the backshifted version is the more natural version.
    – F.E.
    May 23, 2014 at 5:01
  • I have a different opinion. Which would you say is the more natural version for the following two sentences: "He said that I'd need it when it rained," and "He said that I'll need it when it rains."
    – funct7
    May 23, 2014 at 5:05
  • @WoominJoshPark The first version is the version that I'd usually expect to hear from a native English speaker. If the speaker said the 2nd version (the non-backshifted version), then I'd assume there's a reason why the speaker said it that way. If you want to look more deeply into this topic, then you might be interested in the info in the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), which also has an appendix that lists more references.
    – F.E.
    May 23, 2014 at 5:17
  • @WoominJoshPark As a native American English speaker, I would see the difference between "...I'd need it..." and "...I'll need it..." as the difference between rephrasing and quoting what I was told. The "that" in the first clause creates the impression that you are about to rephrase what you were told, hence why the backshifted version is more natural. I would use something resembling the latter in something along the lines of: "His exact words were 'you'll need it when it rains.'"
    – Pockets
    May 23, 2014 at 16:00

This is an 'historical' narrative, set at the past time when the writer moved to Korea, so the head clause of this sentence, They explained ..., is set in the past. The remainder of the sentence is indirect speech, in which the clause expressing what was spoken (and that clause's dependents) must be backshifted to the past tense of its head clause.

If the writer had expressed this as direct, quoted speech instead of indirect speech he would have written:

They explained “You will often give it over the phone when you order things to be delivered.”

For indirect speech, then, the I'd often give it clause represents a futurive present-tense will backshifted into the past tense, a “future-in-past”. Likewise, the when you ordered clause represents a “relative present” form, order, backshifted into the past tense.

  • I know what you mean, but if the state in question is still true to the present time, you shouldn't shift it into the past tense, which will imply that the state is no longer true. link
    – funct7
    May 23, 2014 at 4:39
  • @WoominJoshPark What StoneyB has said in his post is consistent with what you'll see in many grammar usage manuals. The use of the "backshift" past-tense verbs is not being used for a past time purpose. You can often use backshift preterites for situations/states that are still true. If you go through the links in my post (to the 2nd level links), you'll find excerpts from reference grammars on this topic.
    – F.E.
    May 23, 2014 at 5:10

You are confusing between the non-actuality of subjunctive speech and the non-specificity of non-finite speech.

What you are reading is a sentence with subjunctive retrospection.

One of the difficulties I find in students of English from the far-east is their failure to see the significance, beauty and importance of subjunctive speech, as their native tongues probably do not have subjunctive speech.

  • Subjunctive speech operates in imaginary time, where the actuality of events described are unbounded. Unbounded actuality means events do not need to take place. Because events are specified in imaginary time, there is no reality for events to take place.

  • Non-finite speech is unbounded and non-specific in instance of time and object. That is, time of occurrence is unbounded and object is not specific.

  • Non-finite speech is also subjunctive speech if the actuality of events in non-finite speech is unbounded. Non-finite subjunctive is like not having the cake and not specifying when, or if you even ever get eat it - unbounded time, object and actuality.

You should read my explanations

Examples of subjunctive construction, are these present propositional speech

  • If I ordered a pizza, would you eat it?
  • Could you remove your shoes before you enter my house?

Within the braces are temporally and materially non-finite phrases (no specific time or house), to express the time-independence of the materialization of any such house. Since the {non-finite phrase} does not include an imaginary event, without an imaginary event, there is no subjunctivity to consider.

  • I wanted {something}.
  • I wanted {a house that is red}.
  • I will want {a house that is red}.
  • I have never seen {a house that is red}.

Subjunctive proposal for the present, without binding the action into actually happening:

  • If I painted you a red house, would you give me your blue shoes?

Subjunctive retrospection of a past hypothesis, regardless if it did or when it happened:

  • If I had painted you a red house, would you have given me your blue shoes?

Subjunctive future possibility:

  • If I will have painted you a red house after our retirement next year, will you have given me your blue shoes?

Subjunctive retrospection of the past.

  • I remember the wonderful time when he was still alive. I would often jump for joy when we ordered pizza.

Subjunctive non-finite:

  • I advise that she {non-finite subjunctive}.
  • I advise that she {go to school and acquire knowledge}.
  • I advise that she {not go to school but stay home}.
  • I advise that she {be home-schooled}.
  • I advise that she {learn some manners}.
  • I advise that she {start {nested non-finite}}.
  • I advise that she {start {learning some manners}}.

Some people well-versed in understanding the term "subjunctive mood" applied to the English language is unaware of a more loosely defined "subjunctive" having a more general meaning in non-language specific linguistics. As they would attempt to shoot my explanation down due to my mere "wrongful" use of the term "subjunctive". Please refrain from doing that, no matter how wrong or maverick you think my use of the term is.

These topics on non-specificity are rather obfuscating at times and I hope I have not mistakenly assigned examples to categories where they do not belong. If I did, help me correct it.

  • I see lot of effort there.. +1
    – Invoker
    May 23, 2014 at 4:20
  • Someone please debate with me if the non-finite "I wanted {a house that is red}" is also actually subjunctive. I'm not actually sure. May 23, 2014 at 4:22
  • What you are reading is a sentence with subjunctive retrospection. If you are referring to the sentence I asked about, I have to disagree with you. The subjunctive retrospection could be easily paraphrased using "used to"--this is not a "far-east" thing that you speak of, but something in a Cambridge University-published grammar book. At the point in time when the coworker is teaching the writer how to say his address in English, the coworker is saying the writer will need it later on. It's not a retrospective thing.
    – funct7
    May 23, 2014 at 4:37
  • If what you said were true, that means the sentence in question can be paraphrased as such: "They explained that I often used to give it over the phone when I ordered things to be delivered," which makes no sense.
    – funct7
    May 23, 2014 at 4:37
  • You cannot restructure a sentence to express the same idea, and then claim that the sentence is still subjunctive just because you expressed the same idea in another way. May 23, 2014 at 4:50

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