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I received an email saying that the documents are/were being processed.

Which is correct? Are or were?

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  • 1
    I think it is a lazy way of saying "the documents were and are being processed"
    – Avon
    Jun 22, 2015 at 19:29
  • @Avon I think OP has introduced the alternatives (admittedly not very clearly). Jun 23, 2015 at 8:01

2 Answers 2

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From English Club (slightly modified) :

In reported speech:

He said: "I feel sad." becomes He said that he felt sad.

John said (that) he was hungry. ... John's original words: "I am hungry."

[As is seen, w]e sometimes change the tense of the reported clause by moving it back one tense. For example, present simple goes back one tense to past simple. We call this change "backshift".

When do we use backshift?

We use backshift when it is logical to use backshift. So, for example, if two minutes ago John said "I am hungry" and I am now telling his sister, I might NOT use backshift (because John is still hungry):

John just said that he is hungry.

I received an email saying that the documents are/were being processed.

Are they in all probability still being processed?

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  • No probably not because I received an email a month back. So can we use 'are' knowing the fact that words are no longer true ?
    – iamRR
    Jun 22, 2015 at 19:53
  • It's grammatical, but factually incorrect. Backshift. Jun 22, 2015 at 21:45
  • You mean to say that usage of 'are' is grammatical even the words are no longer true. Is that what you saying ? I just wanted to ask if what was said is no longer true then can we use 'are' in the above sentence ?
    – iamRR
    Jun 22, 2015 at 22:44
  • Grammaticality is not the same as acceptability. 'Correct' needs defining in your question. But if the processing has stopped at the time of reporting, backshifting is required for a factually correct communication. Jun 22, 2015 at 23:50
  • Is it correct to use 'are' if the processing has been done ?
    – iamRR
    Jun 23, 2015 at 2:38
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"Were" is correct. When a sentence is in the past, everything has to be said to be in the past as well, even if technically that thing is still on-going right now.

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  • I'm confused. If the documents continue to be processed at the time of writing of the email why would it not be in the present tense and why would that not apply to a story or a news article or every piece of writing ever that used the present tense?
    – Avon
    Jun 22, 2015 at 19:20
  • This (the second sentence) is incorrect; 'rules' learnt at school are often merely 'rules of thumb' giving the way English works 60 - 98% of the time. Jun 22, 2015 at 19:24
  • If your sentence is in present, then this isn't an issue. Look, language isn't necessarily logical. It just sounds wrong to shift to present tense when you were talking about something that happened in the past. Whether that thing is still on-going or not is usually implied by context.
    – user124384
    Jun 22, 2015 at 19:25
  • Then I think you misunderstood the question. The past tense was the OP referring to the email. The email used the present tense (quotes in the question would have helped there).
    – Avon
    Jun 22, 2015 at 19:26
  • Thanks everyone for your participation. I believe if what is said is still true at the time of reporting, then back shifting is optional. I just wanted to ask if what was said is no longer true then can we use 'are' in the above sentence ?
    – iamRR
    Jun 22, 2015 at 19:35

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