I saw this term, backshifting, in an answer to another question, that was not endorsed by the community:

[T]he process called backshifting...signal[s] that the speech is not direct/quoted but rather it is indirect/reported.

That sounds very interesting, but unfortunately, I can't be sure of if this given definition is correct, as it is found in a downvoted answer.

So: What is backshifting, and how does it apply to English? As always, plenty of examples are requested!

1 Answer 1


I think what Dan meant was what happens to direct speech when you turn it into indirect speech; this is especially notable when the indirect speech is subordinate to a sentence in a past tense:

She said: "I will tell him that you lied". (Direct speech, no shifting.)

She announced that she would tell him that you had lied. (Indirect/reported speech, tenses shift.)

Because the tense of the main clause is in the past ("announced"), the finite verbs in the reported/indirect speech shift back in time: "will" becomes "would", and "lied" becomes "had lied".

So "I" becomes "she", because I decided that it was "she" who was announcing her own intentions ("she said" in the first example). You could say "she announced that I would ..."; it would just describe a different situation. That all depends on who's who and who's talking.

  • Is the presence of "would have" in this sentence, "Yesterday I went to the bank to make sure I would have enough money for my trip," in place of "will have" in this sentence, "Today I am going to the bank to make sure I will have enough money for my trip," also because of backshifting? Or is it some other phenomenon altogether? Jan 12, 2020 at 13:57
  • @MrReality: Yes, that is also backshifting. It is the same phaenomenon. Jan 12, 2020 at 14:30
  • Do the bolded verbs in the following sentences have backshifting too: 1) "I think it's high time you grew up." 2) "It would be nice to see you before I left." 3) "I will see to it before I left"? And if not backshifting, is either of them in the past subjunctive form? Apr 3, 2020 at 12:25
  • @HeWhoMustBeNamed: As to example no. 2: with "would" conditional sentences, I believe some authors write by different rules, but the most commonly accepted rule is this: the main clause has "would"; the conditional clause (the "if" clause) has a past subjunctive; and any clauses depending on the "if" clause have simple past (or other non-subjunctive past). Should we call that backshifting? Perhaps so, although it is a bit different in a way. Your second example is a conditional sentence with the actual condition left out, but, when you supply e.g. "if I could", it abides by the rule. Apr 3, 2020 at 14:44
  • @HeWhoMustBeNamed: Example no. 1 feels like a past subjunctive to me, comparable to Suppose you went to India, what would you do? I'm not exactly sure what to call that. Apr 3, 2020 at 14:46

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