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In German reports, most of the time the present tense is used when followed by any kind of citation. E.g. - There is a need for more biocompostable plastics. The XYZ CEO says that... - The CEO explains "...". However, I have noticed that in English in most cases the past tense is used - He said that...; "....", he explained. So, if I have a complete text in the present tense, do I nevertheless HAVE to use the past tense for these examples in English? Or is it my choice?

Thanks a lot!

  • Welcome to ELU Claudia! You can edit your question ... there's a link right below the tags. – StoneyB Nov 12 '18 at 13:03
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    It is down to the "norm" of your target thus for American Press (APA) and MLA (Modern Language Association) or Chicago there are very strict rules that allow for certain (contextual) variations in citations tense. so If you know your target audience is American you could look at owl.purdue.edu/owl/purdue_owl.html – K J Nov 12 '18 at 14:20
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    Yes, in magazine and news writing, the present tense is used for general statements but specific statements are in the past tense. The CEO may believe in general one thing and say a specific thing in another. XYZ CEO John Smith says the company is doing well but also stated that "blah blah blah". – Lambie Nov 12 '18 at 15:41
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Actually, it's simple: there is no special case for speech, so you use the tense that's appropriate to locate the event in time, just like any other sentence.

  1. [future] When it is published later this year, the report's introduction will say "There is a need for more bio-compostable plastics"
  2. [simple present] In its executive summary, the report says "There is a need for more bio-compostable plastics"
  3. [simple past] The previous edition said "There is a need for more bio-compostable plastics"
  4. [conditional past perfect] Without that last-minute edit, the report's summary would have said "There is no need for more bio-compostable plastics"

Note that Number 3, the word "previous" hints that the report is no longer current. Because of this sense of no longer being in the present, the simple past tense is appropriate. For reasons of style, this sentence would normally be written as reported speech rather than a quotation ("...said that more ... were needed"), but it is grammatically correct as written above.

When quoting from documents that are still considered to be "current" (and that includes literary works), Number 2, the simple present is the preferred tense. Generally, you don't see the past tense used as in Number 3 unless the author is contrasting one source with one she/he considers to be "newer" (or better informed, or more advanced).

For speech, it's much easier to get the tense correct - just ask yourself: when were the words spoken? The answer to that question will give you the correct tense to use.

  • You 2) is not indirect speech, which is what the question was about. – Lambie Nov 12 '18 at 15:43
  • Thanks for all of your input!!!! KJO: yes, target group is American - Thanks for the tip! Lambie: Great, that is the explanation I was looking for!!! KrisW: Thanks a lot for the elaboartion!!! – Claudia Hauptmann Nov 12 '18 at 16:17
  • @Lambie - the question asked about the tense for both direct and indirect speech. All of my numbered examples are direct (quoted) speech, but the tense of "to say" would not change if they were examples of indirect (reported) speech. – KrisW Nov 12 '18 at 17:10

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