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I know that usually we don't change modal verbs in reported speech but i want to know if it is OK to change could for might as it doesn't change the meaning. I failed my English exam on this one question and my teacher says that I can pass if I can prove I'm right.

"I could be very rich when I'm 35." said Tom
Tom told me that he might be very rich when he's 35.

I don't see the problem as it means the same. The rules say that modals don't usually change, but they don't say that they never change.

Help needed urgently

  • I do agree that Tom told me that he might/could be very rich when he's 35 has the same meaning regardless of whether might or could is used. (Some people may claim to detect some subtle difference between the two, and probably one can invent contexts where this difference may even be real. But in the most likely meaning of the sentences, I don't think there is any difference most native speakers would agree on.) However, that may not be the point for the purposes of the exam. So, let me ask you a question: why did you change could to might on your exam? – linguisticturn May 9 '18 at 17:59
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Not that I accept the following as the complete picture, but Grammaring would support your teacher's stance:

Modal changes in indirect speech

Similarly to tenses, modals change in indirect speech if the reported words are no longer true or are out-of-date:

Direct speech / Indirect speech

can (ability, present) / could

can (ability, future) / would be able to

may (possibility) / might

may (permission, present) / could

may (permission, future) / would be allowed to

must (obligation, present) must or had to

must (obligation, future) / must or would have to

needn't (necessity, present) / didn't have to or didn't need to

needn't (necessity, future) / wouldn't have to

shall (future time) / would

shall (offers, suggestions) / should

will / would

The following modals [/semi-modals] do not change:

Modals which do not change in indirect speech

could [bolding mine]

would

might

must (deduction)

mustn't

had better

should

ought to

used to

'The rules' is as nebulous as 'the dictionary'. Which rules?

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I'm really sorry, but I'm afraid I think your teacher was right in marking that answer as wrong.

Disclaimer: I am not an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, so you could argue I don't really know what's standard on ESL exams. You should try to get a second opinion on the ELL StackExchange, where you are quite likely to have your question answered by an ESL teacher.

Having said that, let me explain why I think your teacher is right.

On the one hand, I agree with you that

Tom told me that he might/could be very rich when he's 35.

has the same meaning regardless of whether might or could is used. Oh, some people may claim to detect some subtle difference between the two, and probably one can invent contexts where this difference may even be real. But in the most likely meaning of the sentences, I don't think there is any difference most native speakers would agree on.

On the other hand, in the context of an exam, when a teacher asks for reported speech, what is really being asked for is a minimally modified version of the original text such that the new version nevertheless counts as reported speech.

Note that, in general, conversion to reported speech is not unambiguous. For example, if a speaker says I, in the reported speech this may be transformed into she, Julia, the woman on my left, etc. This is why teachers must be careful when composing exam questions, and flexible as far as what answers they allow.

But it is very standard to insist that no unnecessary changes should be made; otherwise the question would be about paraphrasing as opposed to reported speech.

And, unfortunately, the change from could to might is not a necessary one. True, the meaning is unchanged, but that's not the point. All kinds of paraphrases would leave the meaning unchanged. That's not what the question was about. So, I'm really sorry, but I think your teacher is right in marking that question wrong.

  • '[W]hat is really being asked for is a minimally modified version of the original text' is a well constructed and elegant expression, and probably a useful expression to have in a databank here. People often ask questions here not so much focusing on acceptable English as upon trying to justify an exam answer not in the format / style required by the examiner. This is, in my opinion, off-topic as OP hasn't even linked to what they claim as 'the rules'. – Edwin Ashworth May 9 '18 at 19:53
  • @edwin-ashworth Thanks! And, you may well be right about this being off-topic... But I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. – linguisticturn May 9 '18 at 19:54
  • Me too. There are important points to be made. You bring out the fact that exam-specific requirements may very well be not identical to the general requirements for acceptable paraphrasing. I've re-emphasised that 'the rules' need an attributed link, and that they may not be universally accepted. / I'll only upvote here though if someone downvotes; I think both our answers should stay at zero. – Edwin Ashworth May 9 '18 at 19:58
  • @edwin-ashworth OK, deal! – linguisticturn May 9 '18 at 20:01

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