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Choose: He said that while he was watching television, the light (went/had gone) out.

Some people say that past simple tense doesn't change in indirect speech, but my teacher says that the direct sentence was: "While I was watching the television, the light went out" but when we report it we don't change the past progressive but only the past simple. Who's right?

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No, they're not right. But in your example, "He said that while he was watching television, the light (went/had gone) out.", the choice compatible with the sequence-of-tenses rule is "went", not "had gone". The light going out is contemporaneous with the watching of TV, so they are reported using the same tense: "was watching" and "went out". You'd only get a past perfect if you needed to express a past time previous to a past time.

If he says: "I was watching TV.", meaning his watching TV preceded the time at which he spoke, then later you report the past event of his speaking, you could report: "He said that he had been watching TV", since there is a past within a past. However, if his words were "I am watching TV", the report would be: "He said he was watching TV." In the last case, the saying and the watching happened contemporaneously, so the same past tense is used.

Going back to your example, if the words he spoke were "While I was watching television, the light went out" and later you report what he said, since there are two past times involved, the past time when he spoke and a previous past time when he was watching TV, your report could say: "He said that while he had been watching television, the light had gone out." But you generally don't need to shift to the past perfect in this way.

  • I got it but my teacher says that the direct sentence was: "While I was watching the television, the light went out" but when we report it we don't change the past progressive but only the past simple. Could you explain this? Thanks! – user111273 Feb 20 '15 at 19:40
  • I don't understand your teacher's comment. I don't see why the progressive aspect should work any differently than the non-progressive. – Greg Lee Feb 20 '15 at 19:48
  • So we cannot change only half of the sentence, right? – user111273 Feb 20 '15 at 19:52
  • No, but there's an exception. You could have "He said that the light had gone out while he was watching television." But there the "while he was watching television" is not part of the speech that is being reported, but instead is the responsibility of the reporter. – Greg Lee Feb 20 '15 at 20:02
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Non-native speakers learning how to report what they have heard are often taught a complex set of 'rules' that involve concepts such as backshifting and the sequence of tenses. But the changes in tense, if any, that native speakers make in reporting speech are natural and logical.

Clause by clause they use the tenses that represent their interpretation of what they have heard and its current validity. This is why, for example, the words: "I have no money!" could be reported as:

  • John says he has no money.

  • John said he has no money.

  • John said he had no money.

The past perfect is used in indirect speech by native speakers for the same reason they use it in other constructions; namely, if it is necessary to make the time relationship between events clear or if they wish to emphasise that time relationship. For example:

  1. (necessary) When I had written the email, I went to lunch.
  2. (for emphasis) After I had written the email, I went to lunch.

In the present example, John says the words "While I was watching the television, the light went out" and Mary reports this as:

John said that while he was watching television, the light went out.

This accurately represents the situation that John described, a past event interrupting an ongoing action in the past. There is no need for the past perfect to clarify the time relationship.

The past perfect would be necessary, however, to report John's words: "I've been watching television all day" >> John said that he had been watching television all day.

Of course, if Mary is reporting John's statement (e.g. by phone to John's mother) shortly after John says it, then she will report it as: John says that he has been watching televison all day. This brings us back to the point made earlier; namely, that clause by clause reporters "use the tenses that represent their interpretation of what they have heard and its current validity".

The sequence of tenses 'rules' should simply be regarded as common reporting patterns. They may be helpful for learners to know about, but learners should not feel bound by them.

  • I have some doubt about the acceptability of your example "John said he has no money", especially when the complementizer "that" is made explicit: ?"John said that he has no money." – Greg Lee Feb 20 '15 at 21:59
  • @Greg. It is helpful for learners to distinguish between grammar as fact and grammar as choice. The -s inflection in the third person singular of non-modal verbs is grammar as fact, and can be regarded as a rule. The use of the tenses in indirect speech is grammar as choice. Speakers' interpretations of a situation and their communicative intentions influence their choice of any given verb form over another. [cont] – Shoe Feb 21 '15 at 5:31
  • The statement He said he has no money is conceivable as a reply to the question: What did John say? - in which the speaker interprets the situation as John still having no money. He said he had no money would leave it as unclear whether the speaker thinks that it is still the case that John has no money. – Shoe Feb 21 '15 at 5:31
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It depends on when he actually said that in direct speech.

  1. Present

    He says: -While I am watching television, the light goes out.
    He says: -While I was watching television, the light went out.

  2. Past

    He said: -While I am watching television, the light goes out.
    He said: -While I was watching television, the light went out.

Now indirect versions would be:

  1. Present

    He says that while he was watching television, the light went out.
    He says that while he is watching television, the light goes out.

  2. Past

    He said that while he was watching television, the light went out.
    He said that while he had been watching television, the light had gone out.

  • So we cannot change only half of the sentence, right? – user111273 Feb 20 '15 at 19:46
  • No, the whole direct speech should be converted to the narrator's time, because, for example, if at that moment the author was speaking about future, now that might be past. And it can also go forward in the time, e.g.: One day he will say, -I am leaving. will become One day he will say that he will be leaving. – Arsen Y.M. Feb 20 '15 at 20:00
  • @Arsen My American ears find your final sentence unnatural. The normal sentence would be "One day he will say that he's leaving." – Steven Littman Feb 20 '15 at 21:45
  • @Steven, my Armenian ears cannot agree with you either. I know that present continuous can be used to express some certain thing that will happen in the future, like The president is arriving tomorrow or We are buying a new house next year, but One day he will say he is leaving is questionable. – Arsen Y.M. Feb 20 '15 at 21:58
  • @Armen--In the sentence "One day he will say that he's leaving," what makes it not only possible, but more natural than "...will be leaving" is that the point in time when he says it will be close to the time that he actually leaves. That's like "The President is arriving tomorrow," because he will leave shortly after making the statement. – Steven Littman Feb 21 '15 at 3:50

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