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'Advanced Grammar In Use' (AGU) by Martin Hewings, UNIT 37 C, says:

The verbs could, would, should, might, needn't, ought to, used to, and could have, should have, etc. don't change in the report:

'I could meet you at the airport.' --> He said that he could meet us at the airport.

'You should have contacted me earlier.' --> She said I should have contacted her earlier.

Is it possible, though, to have these pairs instead? (These are not from AGU but are made up by myself.)

'I could meet you at the airport.' --> He said that he could have met us at the airport.

'You should contact me.' --> She said I should have contacted her.

If these made-up pairs are possible, contrary to what 'Advanced Grammar In Use' claims, is it possible in general that the verbs could, would, should, might, etc. do change in the report?

If so, is 'Advanced Grammar In Use' wrong about this?

  • I edited to bold the infinitives/participles as well, as I find it easier to compare the sentences that way (but feel free to change it back if you disagree). One thing I noticed when doing that is that you actually changed the example sentence: Hewings has 'You should have contacted me earlier.' as the direct statement, not 'You should contact me earlier.' Are there any examples that just have should in Hewings? – sumelic Feb 28 '18 at 5:46
  • @sumelic I agree with your edit. I did it the way I did simply because that's the way Hewings did in the book. // The second quote is intended to be different from the original; specifically, 'could have met' in the first line and 'should contact' in the second, if you know what I mean. – JK2 Feb 28 '18 at 5:54
  • Oh, oops, I didn't realize that the bolding was in the original source! I get that you're making changes intentionally, but I'm not a big fan of changing 'You should have contacted me earlier' to 'You should contact me earlier' because the second sounds a bit unnatural to me. – sumelic Feb 28 '18 at 5:56
  • @sumelic Think of a context where 'she' was talking about a specific future contact date that she thought was a bit too late. Then, I think she could easily say, 'You should contact me earlier.' – JK2 Feb 28 '18 at 6:26
  • I checked unit 37.it did not have problem.the first part which is bolded is in AGU and it is correct...the second part ,you bolded, does not seem to be correct ;where did you find it? – Lara Feb 28 '18 at 15:54
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+50

Your examples don't work, as they change the intended meaning of the original speaker:

'I could meet you at the airport.'
This means it is possible for the speaker to meet at the airport

He said that he could have met us at the airport.
In contrast, this means that at one time it was possible for the reported speaker to meet at the airport, but it isn't anymore

Think about having a phone conversation with A, while B is sitting next to you. A says "I could meet you." B asks "What did A say?" If you report that "A said he could meet us," B will know that meeting up with A is a possibility. But if you report that "A said he could have met us," B will be left wondering why A can't meet. The same kind of problem occurs with changing should statements:

'You should contact me.'
The speaker wants you to contact her, at some point in the future

She said I should have contacted her.
The speaker is disappointed that you did not contact her at an appropriate time in the past

Perhaps your confusion comes from instances when the facts of the situation have actually changed between the original speech and the report of the speech. Cambridge mentions this possibility

especially where the report looks back to a hypothetical event in the past:

He said the noise might have been the postman delivering letters. (original statement: ‘The noise might be the postman delivering letters.’)

He said he would have helped us if we’d needed a volunteer. (original statement: ‘I’ll help you if you need a volunteer’ or ‘I’d help you if you needed a volunteer.’)

In both of Cambridge's examples, the original statement was expressing a hypothesis or conditional future, and in the reported statement, made some time later, the hypothesis has been (dis)proven or the condition has turned out not to be met (or, in the case of the unexplained noise, perhaps we just don't care anymore since we now know that whatever it was wasn't dangerous). Neither of your examples fits this pattern, so they can't shift the way you propose.

  • +1 for the requested edit. But here's a further question: Cambridge and you seem to be saying that the original statement ‘The noise might be the postman delivering letters.’ describes a hypothetical situation. But isn't it just the speaker guessing about what happened in reality, not in a hypothetical situation? – JK2 Mar 16 '18 at 2:16
  • I'll fix that--the noise example is not a hypothetical future, it's a hypothesis about the past. The material change is that we either find out whether the hypothesis is correct or we decide we don't care. (And I note that my memory of the hypothesis being that the noise was a cat is mistaken...probably because that is always my hypothesis for unexplained noises at night.) – 1006a Mar 16 '18 at 2:19
  • Thanks. Then, in my own example of I could meet you at the airport, IF, before the reported speech is made, it is determined that the original statement cannot be realized, e.g., "he" didn't make it to the airport, then can't you report it like "He said that he could have met us at the airport."? – JK2 Mar 16 '18 at 2:43
  • @1006a: And you're comfortable with the "volunteer" example? – KarlG Mar 16 '18 at 9:30
  • He said it might have been the cats can mean it was or wasn't the cats beyond the immediate situation, when you'd likely use the present. Unlike the other modals, except could when used in the same sense, backshifting doesn't necessarily result in an irrealis. – KarlG Mar 16 '18 at 9:38
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The authors of English Language Today, available on the Cambridge Dictionary website, agree with Hewings that in reported speech modals such as could, would, should, etc. admit no change. They do, however, suggest an exception, "especially where the report looks back to a hypothetical event in the past":

"The noise might be the cats next door."
He said the noise might have been the cats next door.

The may also occur when could is used in the same sense as might:

“That could be Mr. Brown's noisy Ford.”
He said it could have been Mr. Brown's noisy Ford.

They offer this example:

He said he would have helped us if we’d needed a volunteer. (original statement: ‘I’ll help you if you need a volunteer’ or ‘I’d help you if you needed a volunteer.’)

The sentence in indirect speech attempts to do double duty for one conditional that leaves open whether the man rolled up his sleeves and a second where he most likely headed off to the pub. In the first sentence, help is contingent on the need for a volunteer; in the second, there is no such need. This is an important distinction that should be transmitted correctly in reported speech, and indeed easily done, since the first conditional should be rendered:

"I'll help you if you need a volunteer."
He said he would help us if we needed a volunteer [so we handed him a shovel].

Will goes to would and need to needed according to the standard rule. In the second sentence, where the man himself has determined his help is not needed, reported speech is cast as a contrafactual conditional in the past:

He said he would have helped us if we had needed a volunteer [but we didn't, so off for a quick pint].

And this brings up a problem with your suggested examples: an attempt to change tenses with a modal has resulted without exception in an irrealis:

"I could meet you at the airport [if I get off work in time]"
He said that he could have met us at the airport [but he didn't because he had a late meeting].

You also offer the example:

"You should contact me."

And your suggested transformation:

She said I should have contacted her.

But that isn't what she said.

"You should contact me."
She said I should contact her [so I did at the time she suggested].

"You should have contacted me."
She said I should have contacted her [but I thought she meant next Wednesday].

This leaves might as the sole modal which can permit a change in indirect speech because its meaning of maybe yes, maybe no is preserved. Attempting to do so with other modals completely changes the sense of the original speech unless it was couched as an unreal condition in the first place.

  • Thanks. But I'm sort of confused by your statement: "This leaves might as the sole modal which can permit a change in indirect speech." What about the would example (He said he would have helped us if we had needed a volunteer.) earlier? – JK2 Mar 11 '18 at 4:23
  • I allowed for a change in tense for contrafactual conditionals. Might can change as I said, while the other modals cannot. – KarlG Mar 11 '18 at 19:12
  • Re the direct speech 'I could meet you at the airport.' Let me ask you about this context. A: I could meet you at the airport. B: No, please don't bother. Now, B reports to C this conversation with A as follows: (1) B: He said he could meet me at the airport, but I told him not to bother. (2) B: He said he could have met me at the airport, but I told him not to bother. Which would you say, (1) or (2), if you were B? – JK2 Mar 12 '18 at 5:29
  • I would say 1, since that renders the conditional properly from A's POV. Simply because you refused the offer doesn't alter the nature of the original utterance. 2 suggests a different exchange later like "I could have met you at the airport but you told me not to bother." – KarlG Mar 12 '18 at 12:41
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    What I'm trying to make clear, and apparently failing, is that you have to report Hey, JK, I could meet you there as He said he could meet me there. That maintains the possibility of his meeting you there whether it happened or not. If, however, you report it as He said he could have met me there then there is no possibility of his having met you there, because something hindered him from doing so. Whether that hindrance is your having said not to bother or his car was being repaired isn't important. – KarlG Mar 15 '18 at 14:37

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