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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!

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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? – Mr Reality Jan 12 at 13:57
  • @MrReality: Yes, that is also backshifting. It is the same phaenomenon. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 12 at 14:30

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