I have a question about using past and conditional tenses in a context that refers to something told in the past. I think I’ve seen both forms used in films/books, etc., but I'm not sure about it since it's really the only rule.

For example:

A.1. "You said if I can keep up you'll let me join in."

A.2. "You said if I could keep up you'd let me in join in."

The first version should indicate that "You" said to "I" in the past something that has the meaning (present) "if you can keep up I will let you join in", or better: something that when "You" told it had that meaning, so in the past was a first conditional.

The second version sounds better to me but maybe just because I'm not a native speaker.

The meaning sounds similar (and maybe it’s just the same in the end, just a different form of saying it) but maybe it reflects more a disappointment, like the one saying it understood that the possibility (join the group if he can keep up) is gone or it was a scam all along so it never effectively was.

The second example is this:

B.1. "He just told me that it's important and to give it to you when the time is right."

B.2. "He just told me that it's important and to give it to you when the time was right."

Both versions have the "told me that it is important". Like the first version of the previous example, here "He" told in the past that "it" is important, and it should still be in the present. For example, would it be a mistake to write "He said that it was important"? Or is it not a mistake but something that has a different meaning?

But my main question is about the difference preference "is" and "was".

Again, the second sounds better to me because in my language it would be something like that: a past tense followed by a conditional. Googling around I also found out that is the most used form for similar contexts.

The first version is like the previous example: someone said in the past something that at the time was in present tense. The "told me" it's like something that "bring us to the past" so it's not necessary to put "is" in the past too making it a "was". So whenever the time is right in the present, "it" can be given to "you"

The second version. I don't know, it just sounds better to me.

I don't know if I managed to explain my concerns. I hope a native speaker can enlighten me.

  • 3
    This is one of the best first questions I've seen, Daryl. And I suspect most native speakers would be hard pushed to answer it satisfactorily. I suspect that in each case both versions are now considered 'acceptable'. But I've only just discovered an article by Svartvik, I believe, ranking the 'acceptability' of English constructions along a five point scale. Perhaps these would be ranked as 'divided usage', one below 'nobody considers these wrong'. Oct 18, 2014 at 22:58
  • 1
    You might be interested in the topic of indirect reported speech, or more generally in the topic of backshift.
    – F.E.
    Oct 19, 2014 at 2:25

4 Answers 4


In your A sentences we have a straightforward situation. Backshifting after a past-tense reporting verb is nearly always correct, even when the statement is a universal truth, so A2 is correct.

Non-backshifting, if the reported statement is still true or (as in first conditional sentences) possible at the time of reporting is also correct, so A1 is correct, as is B1.

B2 is inconsistent. "He just told me that it's important and to give it to you when the time was right." The speaker has started with a non-backshifted 's (for is) and then has gone on with a backshifted was. This would almost certainly go unnoticed in speech. We often start an utterance with no clear idea of how we are going to complete it, and the conflation of two different ideas is common*. In writing, where we have more time to think and correct, B2 would be corrected by a careful writer so that the reported statement would have either two present-tense forms or two past-tense forms.

For example "I have seen him two weeks ago". Here the speaker has conflated the ideas of "I have seen him" and "I saw him two weeks ago and said what no careful native speaker would write.


I’m an English teacher in Brazil. Although I’m Brazilian I lived for over 8 years in the US, during all of which I studied and read a few books.

For what I know, on the first situation you’re right. It’s both reported speech and a conditional sentence.

The first sentence could be indicating that the character still has hope as well.

The second sentence reflects disappointment for so the speaker shows he’s lost hope.

On the second situation both sentences use it is because the object in case hasn’t lost its importance, you’d only use it was if the object had lost its importance.

Now the is and was on “when the time is/was right.”

If you use is it will refer to a future action, and with was it could be a present or past action.

Hopefully I cleared your doubts.

Please, do correct me if I’m wrong.


I think what is wanted in the second example of each pair is a past participle to go with the subject, i.e.,

A.2. "You'd said if I could keep up you'd let me in join in."

B.2. "He'd just told me that it's important and to give it to you when the time was right."

That is, the past tenses in these sentences' predicates seem stranded without a matching tense in the subject. I haven't the terminology to accurately describe how and why, just intuition.

  • Moving the past tense of the reporting verb into the past perfect can be justified only if you are relating the reporting to a later past-time event. It does not affect the tenses in the reported statement.
    – tunny
    Oct 29, 2014 at 19:27

New here, so bear with me please! I have to agree that two past tenses sound much better. Had and was. If it had been changed to "he tells me to give this to you when the time is right" would then sound correct. Just need to match up all the tenses, even though sometimes they sound awkward??? Thanks for your patience, trying to brush up for writing purposes, and if I step out of line, please do let me know. And also so very true, we sometimes begin a statement not knowing where we are going with it, and tend to make minor errors from time to time. It can be quite painful to hear, and probably even more painful for the person who said it or wrote it and realized his error afterwards.

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