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She told me last year that she went to Europe two years ago.

Did she go to Europe in 2014 (two years before today), or 2013 (two years before she spoke the sentence)?

I checked Merriam-Webster, thefreedictionary.com, and dictionary.com, but none of them are clear about this usage. Furthermore, I've heard the word used in both ways. I've also heard from a friend that the usage differs based on dialect, but he can't back up his statement, and I haven't been able to find a source backing him up. My question is: is there any authoritative reference on the correct meaning, or alternatively, any source saying that the usage differs based on dialect?

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  • If she told you last year that she went to Europe two years ago, that means she went to Europe two years prior to last year, so 2013. – Kristina Lopez Jul 5 '16 at 22:42
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    According to Collins COBUILD English Usage, 'You use ago only when you are talking about a period of time measured back from the present. If you are talking about a period measured back from an earlier time, you use the past perfect with before or previously.' In reported speech, the 'ago' must date back from the statement ('She ...") made by the narrator (not 'she'). So, 2 years before 'She told me ...' was uttered. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 5 '16 at 22:43
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    She went in 2014. If she had gone in 2013, you could say "She told me last year that she went to Europe two years earlier." Or, "...prior." Shifting to past perfect ("had gone") is a more formal register; simple past "went" is fine for conversational English. Also, if she said " I went to Europe two years ago," then she did go in 2013 (direct speech). – Steven Littman Jul 6 '16 at 1:32
  • Why close? Is there a definite answer to this Q.? – Kris Jul 6 '16 at 6:42
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    To build on @KristinaLopez’s comment — If «She told me last year that she went to Europe two years ago.», then 2014.  — If «She told me last year “I went to Europe two years ago.”», then 2013. … … … … … … … … … … … Look into indirect speech. – Scott Jul 6 '16 at 20:15
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Consider these notes on dealing with reported speech containing the word ago:

Changing time and place references - EducationFirst:

  • Phrase in direct speech: "I saw her a week ago," he said.
  • Equivalent in reported speech: He said he had seen her a week before.

Time and Place in Reported Speech - English Club:

  • Direct speech: two minutes ago
  • Reported speech: two minutes before

Noun Clauses/Reported Speech (Indirect Speech); Tense Harmony or Sequencing - Mary Nell Sorensen, University of Washington:

  • Direct speech: five days ago
  • Reported speech: five days before, five days earlier

Cambridge Dictionary

  • Direct speech: ‘I finished the job three weeks ago,’ the boy protested.
  • Indirect speech: The boy protested that he had finished the job three weeks before.

The last reference also provides a rationale for the shift from ago to earlier or before:

We often change demonstratives (this, that) and adverbs of time and place (now, here, today, etc.) because indirect speech happens at a later time than the original speech, and perhaps in a different place. - Cambridge Dictionary

This accords with the normal use of ago as a time reference based on the speaker's present. In reported speech, the speaker changes, so the word ago no longer conveys the correct time. The word ago is therefore changed to earlier or before.

On this basis, the word ago in your example references the present (time) of the speaker of the sentence. Since you indicate that the full sentence was uttered in 2016, the time two years ago refers to 2014. This is so even though the sentence reports a traveller who spoke in 2015.

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    Spot on Lawrence. +1 – BoldBen Sep 27 '16 at 10:13
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According to Collins COBUILD English Usage, 'You use ago only when you are talking about a period of time measured back from the present. If you are talking about a period measured back from an earlier time, you use the past perfect with before or previously.' In reported speech, the 'ago' must date back from the statement ('She ...") made by the narrator (not 'she'). So, 2 years before 'She told me ...' was uttered.

– Edwin Ashworth (comments above)

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  • The Collins COBUILD English Usage statement only references a single marker of time. It doesn't address the issue of resolving cases involving more than one. We have two markers here (the time the statement was uttered and the time the friend's statement was made), so I wouldn't consider this usage note directly applicable here. The note about the past perfect refers to something else. – Lawrence Aug 28 '16 at 9:00

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