8

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!

8

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.

8
  • 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? – HeWhoMustBeNamed Jan 12 '20 at 13:57
  • @MrReality: Yes, that is also backshifting. It is the same phaenomenon. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 12 '20 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? – HeWhoMustBeNamed Apr 3 '20 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. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Apr 3 '20 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. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Apr 3 '20 at 14:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.