I thought you said you are Michael Jordan.

Or would the correct form be:

I thought you said you were Michael Jordan.

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Both are grammatical in my dialect of American English, however, I would use them in different contexts. "are" would be used in a direct, factual context perhaps challenging someone on the phone or perhaps challenging someone who just stated that he was Michael Jordan but doesn't look like the famous Michael Jordan. "were" would be used if I weren't certain that I heard the person correctly, or if I were verifying that I heard the person correctly. I have heard people in casual speech contexts use both, in both senses, but the "were" version is rarer, and more likely to be used by someone familiar with the rarely-used subjunctive in English. Whit

  • For what it's worth, I use were more often than not. The subjunctive is something I find natural. I recognize I may be in the minority. – Jason Bassford Mar 21 at 5:00

Grammatically-speaking this is a reported speech case, so it should be "were" as the verb gets "back-shifted" in time. This is a good article which should help you explore reported speech. The chain of events is this:

Speaker A says, "I am Michael Jordan." However, later, we find out this is not the case. Speaker B then challenges A, "I thought you said you were Michael Jordan."

On the printed page, we can actually quote the speaker, and indicate this by using quotation marks: "I thought you said, "I am Michael Jordan."" In your example, you use "you" and not "I." When we speak, we have the option of either directly quoting or using reported speech.

Here's an example: Speaker A: "I like vanilla ice cream." Speaker B: "He said he liked vanilla ice cream." (reported speech) or "He said, "I like vanilla ice cream."" (direct quote)

The amount of time that transpires between speaking and reporting is important. For example:

Waiter: What kind of ice cream does your friend want?" Mike: What kind of ice cream do you want? Jack: I want pistachio. Mike: He said he wants pistachio.

In everyday situations back shifting would cause confusion, so we change the language to convey a current desire. This situation may seem artificial, but when translating languages in real time, this happens often.

  • I was not able to find a source for this (maybe another reader can), but confusion in reported speech is not an unusual thing. Qadaffi, in 2011, said "I am loved by the people." When the BBC reported this, they had a choice of either quoting him directly, or using back shifting. They choose back shifting (Qadaffi said he was loved by the people) because it weakened Qadaffi's position; it gave the impression that he was not currently loved by the people. – michael_timofeev Mar 21 at 6:39

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