This is the subject that's been bugging me for quite some time now, even though I believe I've managed to grasp the entire reported speech pretty well.

If I want to repeat to someone what I previously said about my opinion on swimming, I could go either with #1:

  1. I said I didn't like to swim.

if I didn't want to emphasize anything, or with #2,

  1. I said I don't like to swim.

if I want to make it clear that my not liking to swim still holds true.

What I can't understand is why I have to switch tenses back if I'm talking about things like:

  1. He didn't know California was on the West Coast.

It's obvious that California hasn't moved a single inch, so why can't I express it by saying:

  1. He didn't know California is on the West Coast.

Similarly, is such shifting required in every utterance of such meaning? For example:

  1. I told you it was impossible to fly.

It's obvious that no matter how hard I tried I still wouldn't be able to fly. So can't I say "is impossible" (#7) in this case?

  1. I told you it is impossible to fly.
  • 2
    I'd be interested to know the source of your assumption that you "have to switch tenses back if I'm talking about things like: He didn't know California was on the West Coast." This is certainly untrue.
    – Shoe
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 16:40
  • This thread is one of the sources. I'd really appreciate if you could elaborate in an answer, and also voice your opinion on my "swimming" examples, though they were not intended to be the main subject of my question.
    – Bebop B.
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 20:42

4 Answers 4


I agree with @Cord's answer and comment about defaulting to the past tense. I simply wish to add some references so that the OP can make up his or her mind about the acceptability of sentences such as I told you it's impossible to fly.

Firstly, this is what the Collins Cobuild English Grammar (p327) has to say about the "default" use of the past tense:

When the reporting verb is in a past tense, a past tense is also usually used for the verb in the reported clause even if the reported situation still exists. For example, you could say "I told him I was eighteen" even if you are still eighteen. You are concentrating on the situation at the past time you are talking about.

The CCEG then goes on to state:

A present tense is sometimes used instead, to emphasize that the situation still exists.

Swan in Practical English Usage (p251) writes:

If somebody talks about a situation that has still not changed - that is to say, if the original speaker's present and future are still present and future - a reporter can often choose whether to keep the original speaker's tenses or to change them, after a past reporting verb. Both structures are common.

  • DIRECT: The earth goes round the sun.
  • INDIRECT: He proved that the earth goes/went round the sun.

Huddleston and Pullum in A Student's Introduction to English Grammar (p47) state:

Even with preterite reporting verbs backshift is often optional: You can keep the original tense instead of backshifting. Instead of [I told Stacy that Kim had blue eyes], therefore, we can have: I told Stacy that Kim has blue eyes.

Yule in Explaining English Grammar (p272) states:

The forms used in a reported version of previous talk can vary a great deal and typically depend on the perspective of the reporter. If the speaker thinks that the situation being reported is still true at the time of the report, then there may be no backshifting.

Quirk et al. in A Comprehensive Grammar Of The English Language (p1027) state:

Backshift is optional when the time reference of the original utterance is valid at the time of the reported utterance.

They list several examples, including:

  • Their teacher had told them that the earth moves around the sun.
  • I heard her say that she is studying Business Administration.
  • I didn't know that our meeting is next Tuesday.
  • They thought that prison conditions have improved.

Finally, Huddleston and Pullum, in the monumental Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, currently the most authoritative descriptive grammar (p155), state:

Very often, the use of a backshifted preterite is optional. Jill's "I have too many commitments" may be given in indirect reported speech in two ways:

  • Jill said she had too many commitments.
  • Jill said she has too many commitments.

In a lengthy discussion of contexts in which the present tense is likely to be retained by the reporter, they state:

If I endorse or accept the original, this will somewhat favour the deictic present version, and conversely if I reject it this will favour backshift.

  • She said she doesn't need it so I'll let Bill have it. [accepted: non-backshifted]

  • She said that there was plenty left, but there's hardly any. [rejected: backshifted]

If we contextualise the flying example, we could say that the backshift is more likely if the telling happened a long time ago. Maybe 5 years ago your friend told you he was working on a pair of wings so he could fly to the shops. Now, after 5 years of fruitless attempts, he tells you of his failure. You then remind him of what you said:

I told you it was impossible to fly.

As Cord says: "We are more concerned about the report itself (the source and context of the information)".

Conversely, imagine that your friend comes in one day with a pair of wings and tells you she is going to fly around the garden. You tell her it's impossible. She then makes several unsuccessful attempts, at the end of which you remind her of what you said an hour before:

I told you it's impossible to fly.

The emphasis here is on the general (and present) impossibility of flying and not on the telling.


A large portion of tense choice depends on perspective. In your first example, changing the sentences a bit for some time clarity:

I said that I did not like your dog.

The perspective in this first sentence is that of looking backward in time to a point where you announced that you were not in favor of someone's dog. It is impossible to say if this remains true. For instance, the dog may have died.

I said that I do not like your dog.

The amount of time between now and when you said this statement does not matter. You are instead reporting on a present statement, which is true now just as much as when it was originally created.

All of this is made difficult specifically by the way we construct statements with "reporting" verbs: to say, to believe, to know, etc. The best way to check if your construction makes sense is to separate it into two sentences.

Apples grow on trees.
She did not know that.

In short, there's nothing wrong with your construction, as you have independently verified through the BBC and others.

  • I've got to say: no question has left me so confused in a good while. Your answer seems to concur to what I know, but at the same time I'm in doubt because of Greg's explanation. Why are your opinions so diverse, and therefore - which is the most correct one?
    – Bebop B.
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 20:46
  • 1
    I'm afraid Greg is just wrong in this instance. If the reported material remains true (particularly, as you say, if you want to highlight that it is true), you are completely welcome to use the present tense. The reason we default to the past tense is because we typically don't care if the reported material is still true; we are more concerned about the report itself (the source and context of the information).
    – Cord
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 14:09

Simply because the English-speaking people don't like someone throwing a present stone in what it is a sea of past.

It'd like troubling the waters, being inconsistent.

At Google Books (not vanilla Google):

"didn't know she was on" About 21,200 results

"didn't know she is on" About 2 results

Clear enough?

  • I'd understand it if it was just about distrubing the waters of the sea of past. To my ear though, this cases seem to be drifting down the continuous river of time, which flows up until now, instead of staying in the past - thus my bafflement.
    – Bebop B.
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 14:26
  • 1
    Just don't try to invent the language. Find great models and follow them. Or people will say "he talks strange." Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 14:34

The general rule is that tense must be shifted in non-quoted complement clauses but not necessarily in relative clauses (because the tense in a relative clause can be taken to be relative to the speaker). But it's tricky, for at least the following reasons:

  • A direct and an indirect quotation can be confounded. I'm suspicious of your example "I said I don't like to swim". You've written it without quotes around the complement "I don't like to swim", but how do you know that's right. Is "I said that I don't like to swim" equally acceptable?
  • What looks like a highest, matrix clause can be confounded with a parenthetical expression: "I don't like to swim (I said)." "I said already: I don't like to swim." (Compare: "I believe sequence of tenses really works, doesn't it?", where the tag goes with what looks like a complement sentence.)
  • What looks like a complement sentence can do double duty and have the force of a declarative. If you wanted to inform your listener that California is actually on the West Coast, I think you could say: "You perhaps didn't realize that California is on the West Coast."
  • I'm a bit confused by your answer. Many respected sources, including BBC or Longman state that when one is reporting a situation/state that still holds true at the moment of speaking it is possible to retain the original tense. Isn't that so? Also, I believe that my "I said I don't like to swim" will be understood as simply an abbreviated version of "I said THAT I don't like to swim". As for your third asterisk: rewritting sentences isn't what I'm looking for at the moment - I'm more focused on understanding the grammar in my former examples.
    – Bebop B.
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 15:05
  • @BebopB., --- No, it isn't so in general that something true in the present can have a present tense. (Isn't that exactly what some of your own examples show?) --- Yes, you can optionally omit "that" in a complement clause, but the resulting construction may be ambiguous in speech, since quote marks can't be heard directly. --- I don't understand the last sentence of your comment.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 15:58
  • But isn't your opinion contradictory to what others are saying in this very thread?
    – Bebop B.
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 20:29
  • Perhaps I contradicted someone. Does that matter? I'm really more interested in facts about English.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 22:32
  • But I'm able to cite a handful of sites that contribute to my opinion about retaining the original tense: 1, 2, 3, and my previous ELL question. Wouldn't you consider it a "fact about English"?
    – Bebop B.
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 22:42

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