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I have a question regarding impersonal reporting structures. The task is to complete the second sentence beginning with Bob as a subject so that it has the same meaning as the first sentence:

  1. Bob's friends said that he had been a champion swimmer at school.
  2. Bob is or was said to have been a champion swimmer at school.

Which tense should be used in the second sentence, present or past?

The key in the coursebook says the correct answer is Is. However, I would say Was is correct, but since I am not a native English speaker, I'm not sure how to explain this to my students.

  • Welcome to EL&U. You are asking about changing the active voice to the passive. Now, his friends said and the tense is past. You have to use was to indicate the past tense in the passive voice. I'd like to advise you to visit English Language Learners, but please make sure you take the tour and visit their Help Center before posting any question. – user140086 Jan 4 '16 at 12:54
  • Thank you - I would also use the past tense. But in the coursebook that I (as an ESL teacher) use in class, the answer is IS - it's not a mistake, because there are three similar sentences and in all the suggested answer is in the present. (The coursebook is New Success Upper Intermediate). – Eva PS Jan 4 '16 at 15:56
  • I have seen numerous mistakes in grammar books, especially in this kind of question and it doesn't surprise me at all. You don't need to convince me about the book. The link clearly explains it very well. BTW, can you please edit your question to make it read better? – user140086 Jan 4 '16 at 16:13
  • You can't have the same meaning while removing information! These active and passive sentences cannot be equated! – curiousdannii Jan 5 '16 at 11:52
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Preamble

This is an interesting question that shows up the limitations of many of the simplistic conversion exercises that proliferate in grammar books for English language learners.

A typical example, and the source of many a question on this site, is conversion from active to passive. Such a conversion may be formally possible but results in a sentence that is unlikely to ever be produced by a native speaker.

Furthermore, such conversion exercises are usually wholly decontextualised, as in the present case. There may be one or more alternative answers, but unless we know the communicative intent of the speaker, we will not be able to select the most appropriate construction in which to convey that intent.

And a final introductory point: in everyday conversation native speakers generally produce utterances spontaneously and intuitively in order to express a particular meaning. They do not engage in the kind of conscious conversion process that these grammar exercises demand.

The issue in question

There is clear evidence that the present tense is more common than the past. Here are just a few comparative results from Google:

"Obama was said to have" (59,000) - "Obama is said to have" (300,000)

"Merkel was said to have" (3,000) - "Merkel is said to have" (20,000)

"Putin was said to have" (9,000) - "Putin is said to have" (48,000)

So {Person} is said to have ... can be considered the default tense for this construction - if the person is still alive. For people who are long dead the picture is much more balanced, but still the present tense outweighs the past tense.

"Caesar was said to have" (27,000) - "Caesar is said to have" (29,000)

"Columbus was said to have" (20,000) - "Columbus is said to have" (29,000)

"Mao was said to have" (12,000) - "Mao is said to have" (18,000)

I think the explanation for this can be found in Lewis' discussion of the past tense in The English Verb (p69):

... the "past" form (tense) is less immediate, or more remote than the the basic form (present tense). This contrast is one of the most fundamental in the English verb. The choice between the two traditional tense forms expresses the contrast, from the speaker's point of view, between immediate and remote events or actions.

Lewis then makes the following comments concerning the choice of tense in reported speech:

If, at the moment of speaking, the idea uppermost in the speaker's mind is the words of the speaker which are being reported, it is more likely that the basic, immediate form of the verb (present tense) will be chosen.

If the speaker's attention at the moment of speaking is more on said or asked, in other words if the original words are more remote from the speaker, at the time of speaking, not surprisingly the second, remote form (past tense) is appropriate.

Clearly, if we are talking about someone who is still alive and are interested more in what was said about him or her, than when this was said, then the present tense is more likely.

Conversely, when we are talking about someone who died long ago, the remoteness of the reports about him or her may have a greater force in our mind, which results in use of the past tense.

Extrapolating to the OP's example, we can say that the present tense (Bob is said to ...) is more likely if Bob is still alive and we are more interested in conveying information about him than dating the source of the information in the past.

There is one context, however, in which the past tense is much more likely: namely, if what was said about Bob turns out to be wrong, and we want to go on to correct that information:

Bob was said to have been a champion swimmer at school, but it seems this was just a rumour he spread himself.

So, in summary, the present tense (... is said to have ... ) is a lot more common than the past tense equivalent (... was said to have ... ). But the coursebook is wrong to imply that the present tense is the only correct possibility in the conversion of the original sentence

  • Surely the difference between "Caesar was said to X" and "Caesar is said to X" is when the saying takes/took place? If it was during Caesar's lifetime (and perhaps but not necessarily less so now) it's was; if we know something now which wasn't known then, it's is. I would say this is the reason for the better balance. (This reasoning would also concur that "It was said" is correct, because Bob's friends expressed their opinion in the past.) I agree that theoretical exercises are fundamentally flawed because context is vital. – Andrew Leach Jan 6 '16 at 8:17
  • @Andrew Leach. 1. Interesting point. But to take just one example, I have found a Google hit for both: "Caesar was said to have been given a daily massage to treat his neuralgia" and "Caesar is said to have been given a daily massage to treat his neuralgia". I don't know who made the original claim or when, but the reporters of the claim have made different tense choices, so I'm not sure the distinction you make is so clear-cut. – Shoe Jan 6 '16 at 8:41
  • @Andrew Leach. 2. As to the OP's example, if we are regarding it purely as a conversion exercise then I think your reasoning may hold water. But as I said in my preamble, this does not reflect spontaneous language production. And, in my opinion, we are more likely to report the claim with the present tense usage if we are focusing on the information itself (that we believe to be true), than on the time when it was said or by whom. – Shoe Jan 6 '16 at 8:42
  • I agree that conversion exercises are have nothing to do with real language use. But they are a useful (and often also necessary) way for non-native speakers to learn a language, especially grammatical structures. – Eva PS Jan 6 '16 at 16:55
  • But they are a useful (and often also necessary) way for us non-native speakers to learn grammar. When I explain this structure to my students I usually write these four sentences on the whiteboard: 1. He is said to be an honest man. 2. He is said to have been an honest man. 3. He was said to be an honest man. 4. He was said to have been an honest man. And then we compare the the meaning. I think they show really nicely how the two actions in each sentence are related. – Eva PS Jan 6 '16 at 17:01
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The OP in her comments stated

But in the coursebook that I (as an ESL teacher) use in class, the answer is IS - it's not a mistake, because there are three similar sentences and in all the suggested answer is in the present.

I happen to think the coursebook's answer is actually correct, Bob is still alive, "Bob is said" and he was a champion swimmer "to have been" (we use the infinitive after "said").

Here are other examples taken from the net:

  1. President Obama is said to be considering a range of options, including airstrikes... (present infinitive)

  2. Cameron is said to have also been involved with marijuana while at Eton. (past infinitive)

  3. The stadium's design and construction is said to meet the standard and regulations set by FIFA ... (present infinitive)

  4. This is a German method that is thought to have been around for 70 years and can also be known as EAV or Electro-Acupuncture (past infinitive)

it is said: it is commonly reported; it is rumored; people assert or maintain.

Passive form of reporting verbs

With present reference, the passive is followed by the present infinitive:

  • People think that Johnson is in Cardiff.
  • Johnson is thought to be in Cardiff

With past reference, the passive is followed by the past infinitive:

  • People believe that Johnson left Cardiff last month.
  • Johnson is believed to have left Cardiff last month.

When a statement or several opinions have been expressed in the past, recent or distant, the auxiliary can be either in the present or past

  1. A contemporary witness, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, reports that the Bible was said to have been produced in either 158 or 180 copies.

  2. The Queen was said to be delighted that she never travels on East Coast, even though there is free wireless broadband and a cup of tea in First Class

  3. The Queen is said to be delighted that she never travels on East Coast, even though there is free wireless broadband and a cup of tea in First Class

  • What if Bob is dead? Can we tell just looking at the example sentence? – user140086 Jan 5 '16 at 8:42
  • It's possible that Bob is dead, and his friends are talking about his past triumphs, but my answer explains why "is said" is also correct. My point being, it is not wrong or a printing error. The only way to know for certain would be see what is written before the sample sentence, but in grammar coursebooks, they rarely provide a full context. – Mari-Lou A Jan 5 '16 at 8:45
  • I am not saying your answer is wrong. Both are possibilities. But, why do they not use Bob's friends say that he was a champion swimmer at school? If someone is reporting a conversation that took place at his funeral some years ago,for example, I think was should be used. – user140086 Jan 5 '16 at 8:49
  • Because the example uses the past tense in "Bob's friends said.." It is a reporting verb, we usually report about something that was said or done in the past. – Mari-Lou A Jan 5 '16 at 8:51
  • This is why I dislike answering grammar questions, you think "let's give a clear cut answer" and then it gets pointed out there are exceptions, and "why" isn't it this? and "why" isn't it that? And before you know it, you have to write a treatise for a question that will be read by maybe fifty visitors. – Mari-Lou A Jan 5 '16 at 9:11
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I would suggest that the real point of distinction here is this: Do Bob's friends still say that he was a champion swimmer?

If they definitely no longer do (perhaps because their opinion was proved wrong), then the act of saying that is being reported is firmly in the past, and "was said to have been" is correct.

Whenever there is a possibility that they still say he was a champion swimmer, "is said to have been" should be used.

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  1. Bob's friends said that he had been a champion swimmer at school.
  2. Bob is said to have been a champion swimmer at school.
  3. Bob was said to have been a champion swimmer at school.

1 is passive. 2 and 3 are both active. 2 and 3 are not the same. Here's proof.

Then people found out Bob cheated. They don't say that anymore.

If that followed 2 it wouldn't make any sense. The is/was choose indicates the tense of the speaking and is independent of active / passive considerations.

Not being the same doesn't mean it matters. If the context never makes an issue out of this then 2 vs 3 is simply a style choice and has nothing to do with being correct.

So stop, you're both right.

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