In reported speech, tenses are generally backshifted. If what was said is still true at the time of reporting then back shifting is optional. My question is, if someone doesn't backshift the tense knowing for a fact that the statement is no longer true, is that still acceptable?

For example, suppose John tells me today:

I am hungry.

Then two days later, I happen to tell my friend:

John said that he is hungry.

Even though I know that John is no longer hungry, I used the present simple tense (is). Is this usage correct?


2 Answers 2


If you know John isn't hungry, but you don't backshift the tense in the reported speech, then you've implied that something is true (namely that John is still hungry) when you know it isn't.

This isn't the forum to tell you whether that's wrong. Check to see if there's a stackexchange for tricky moral issues. Grammar rules aren't likely to help.

I find this site helpful in summarizing the rules for backshifting reported speech: https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/reported-speech-backshift.htm

  • In the sentence 'John said that he is hungry.' I have already used a past tense "said" then why would the sentence imply John is still hungry ?
    – iamRR
    Jun 26, 2015 at 5:45
  • You have used the past tense "said" to indicated that your speech was in the past. The question isn't about your speech but about John's hunger -- is he no longer hungry or is he still hungry? And for that, we have to look for tense of the verb before "hungry"?
    – deadrat
    Jun 26, 2015 at 5:55
  • My question is very simple, if John is no longer hungry then why can't I use the sentence "John said that he is hungry." Here usage of 'said' clearly implies that the situation is of past which concludes that John was hungry in the past not present. Am I missing something ?
    – iamRR
    Jun 26, 2015 at 6:14
  • I'll explain it again. The usage of said implies only one thing -- that you spoke in the past. The question of whether John's state of hunger is past or possibly continuing depends on the tense of verb "to be" in the clause "that he *** hungry," where the antecedent of "he" is John.
    – deadrat
    Jun 26, 2015 at 6:33
  • So you mean to say that if John is still hungry then it should be "John said that he is hungry." And if not still hungry then "John said that he was hungry." Did I get it right now ?
    – iamRR
    Jun 26, 2015 at 7:01

I am answering the question posed in the title. Deadrat is right when he gives a negative answer to the question posed in the body text.

"Optional" is not a good word here, because when backshifting is optional the two options are not identical and one will probably be preferable according to what you want to communicate.

Backshifting is optional only when the report is in the past tense and one of two further conditions hold:

1) the reported speech would be in the present tense if it were quoted directly and what it refers to remains currently valid (in this case, you may put the reported speech in the present tense rather than the past: he told me the Earth orbits the Sun), or

2) the reported speech would be in the past tense if it were quoted directly and it is clear that what it refers to was in the past from the speaker's frame of reference (in this case, you may put the reported speech in the past tense rather than the past perfect: he told me he ate it the day before).

The alternatives that may also be used are he told me the Earth orbited the Sun and he told me he had eaten it the day before.

Whether in either case you should backshift depends on issues such as style, emphasis, rhythm, voice, and pace. Is current validity relevant? Well it may or may not be. If it is relevant, how relevant is it? Does it matter what your narrator thinks anyway? In the second case, is the past in the past status of what the speaker refers to sufficiently clear, given your audience? Is there a relevant difference between ate and had eaten, given how you wish to convey the speaker's character or state of mind, your desired pace, and so on?

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