# Reported speech WITHIN a conditional clause

Let's assume the following examples:

[Direct Speech] James to his team: What is the problem?

[Reported Speech] James asked them what the problem was (could also be James asked them what the problem is)

[Direct Speech] Team : The algorithm fails to calibrate correctly.

[Reported Speech] They told him the algorithm failed to calibrate correctly.

Now if we move to a conditional (hypothetical) sentence, should it be:

• If James asked them what the problem was, they would tell him the algorithm fails to calibrate correctly

Or

• If James asked them what the problem was, they would tell him the algorithm failed to calibrate correctly

## Issue

It seems that in sentence #2 we lose the "present" situation as if the related story were set in the past, which is not the case.

So I would tend to say the correct one is the first sentence. It would mean we should use the reported speech in the if clause but not in the main one (with would)?

• I'm guessing you can't quote directly like: If James asked them "what's the problem?", they'd say "the algorithm fails to calibrate correctly." To keep the present-ness, that's what I'd do, but maybe you have a constraint here. Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 23:17
• Yes quoting directly would be the easy way although it might not be "elegant" in some situations. Also writing "If James asked them what the problem is, they would tell him the algorithm fails to calibrate correctly" gives some consistency but it might not be always possible to use the present in the first reported speech. Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 23:22
• I would prefer a third option: if James asked them what the problem is, they'd tell him the algorithm fails to calibrate correctly. (Do algorithms calibrate?) Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 23:25
• I think that part of your problem is that you are using the past tense of 'to ask' and then following it with the present tense of 'to fail'. How do you feel about "If James were to ask them what the problem is they would tell him that the algorithm fails to calibrate"? Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 23:39
• @Janus Bahs Jacquet Yes this is the same option I have proposed in my previous comment and what I'd naturally say. However I guess this works because the problem is still ongoing maybe. If we can actually always use the present, then can we consider back-shifting in the reported clause is NOT required when we have conditional expressions? Algorithms may be used to calibrate some surfaces for instance. Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 23:44

in the example, there are several verbs describing events or states holding at various times. The general rule is that when the times are the same, the verb tenses must be the same:

``````(I am saying[t0]: ) If James asked[t1] them what the problem was,
they would tell[t1] him the algorithm fails[t2=t0] to calibrate correctly.
``````

With "fails" in the simple present, the time the algorithm is deemed to have failed, t2, is the same as the speech event, t0, so the tense of "fails" is the same as the tense of "am saying", which is the present, t0.

However, if the algorithm is deemed at t1 to have failed, the time of the conversation being reported, that is t2=t1, since "asked" and "would tell" are past tense, then so must "fail" be put in the past tense.

It boils down to the question of who is taken to be responsible for the diagnosis of the problem. Is it the "them" of the past conversation? Or is it "I", the reporter.

English speakers sometimes differ in what the tense agreement should be in such complicated examples where there is more than one possibility.

It might also be possible to express that the algorithm is taken to have failed at a time previous to the reported conversation, in which case we'd have

``````(I am saying[t0]: ) If James asked[t1] them what the problem was,
they would tell[t1] him the algorithm had failed[t2<t1] to calibrate correctly.
``````

It is hard to understand your question. Your example sentences make me uncomfortable. You use technical language, you use it in a weird way, and you use it inconsistently. Calibrate shows up one way in the Question ("the algorithm fails to calibrate correctly") and another way in a Comment ("algorithms may be used to calibrate some surfaces" -- suddenly calibrate has become transitive). Your conditional sentences are constructed strangely.

You wrote:

It seems that in sentence #2 we lose the "present" situation as if the related story were set in the past, which is not the case.

I think you were referring to the following example sentence you wrote:

If James asked them they would tell him the algorithm failed to calibrate correctly

It seems you are bothered by the word "failed" because it is in the past tense.

I am guessing that you have been uncomfortable with some conditional statements in English, noticing that a verb that would normally have been in the present tense gets put into the past tense in constructing the conditional expression.

Let's look at a couple of simple sentences:

1a. If Bob asks for the results, they will say the method fails.

2a. If Bob asked for the results, they would say the method fails.

Those sentences work, and they would also work with a past tense version of "fail":

1b. If Bob asks for the results, they will say the method failed.

2b. If Bob asked for the results, they would say the method failed.

In terms of grammar, both versions work just fine with fail in either the present or the past tense.

However, we might note that in Sentences 2a and 2b, there is a past tense in the "if" clause. That's just how the conditional works in English.

If this doesn't get to what you are trying to ask, I would encourage you to start fresh with a new question that doesn't have "calibrate" in it, with some helpful numbering to make it easier to talk about your example sentences.

• Thanks for your answer. I agree my question is not clear enough. We do use "calibrate" in this weird way every day though. Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:42
• @Franks - For our grammar sentences it would be helpful to narrow it down to one way of using it. Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:45
• Yes I wanted to reformulate the question here in my previous comment but I'm editing the first post instead. Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:47
• May I suggest that you start over again from scratch? Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:48
• Are you suggesting that I create a new "thread"? Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:56