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!


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

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.