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.

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    @MrReality: Yes, that is also backshifting. It is the same phaenomenon. Jan 12, 2020 at 14:30
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    @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
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    @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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    @HeWhoMustBeNamed: Example no. 3 looks odd to me. I'm not sure it is proper English; "left" makes little sense to me. I would use "leave" there. Apr 3, 2020 at 14:47
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    @HeWhoMustBeNamed: A bit late but: I agree (1) is a subjunctive, lincensed by it is high time. // I would say the root of all those polite woulds and shoulds is an implied condition. You could say Occam's Razor cuts in many ways: this way, you can explain away polite would and conditionals as one and the same phaenomenon. [If you asked me,] I would say... or [if it were my place to say,] I should appreciate..., etc. ... Oct 5, 2021 at 4:11

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