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Last week in an EFL class I told students that when reporting a speech they should "backshift" the main verb, exception made when the statement is a general truth or it is still valid.

In their homework this week, I found sentences like these:

  1. She told me she had been 14 back then.
  2. He told me it had been a concert organised by X.
  3. She told me the concert had been in 2018.
  4. She told me that Jessie J had said goodbye to the audience at the end of the concert.

These backshifts to past perfect sound quite weird to me as I would keep the past simple. However, I can't figure out why and my grammar books aren't helping. In the first case, for example, one could argue that since she is not 14 anymore the condition is not true anymore hence making the tense backshift necessary.

Could anybody help me out?

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    As a general rule, it's common to backshift only when it clarifies things or helps readability. Without other context, I can't see any need to backshift in any of these examples. A lot of less prestigious grammar books tend to give broad-brush rules without too much research into how people actually use the language (especially in speech). (4) especially sounds unwieldy. May 17, 2020 at 15:04
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    @Edwin: it's common to backshift from the past to the past perfect only if it clarifies things. Backshifting from the present to the past is mandatory in many cases, even when the time frame is perfectly clear without it. (I'm sure you know this, but I'm trying to clarify it for other people.) May 17, 2020 at 15:28
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    Swan in Practical English Usage (page 251) states in the section reporting past tenses: "...past perfect tenses are not always used, especially if the time relationships are clear without a change from past to past perfect."
    – Shoe
    May 17, 2020 at 15:50
  • My apologies for not giving the broader picture; @Peter is quite right. As a general rule, it's common to backshift from the past to the past perfect only when it clarifies things or helps readability. Last month, John said "I am tired" —X→ Last month, John said that he is tired. May 17, 2020 at 16:06
  • I don't find any of those sentence to sound strange or unusual. May 17, 2020 at 16:20

2 Answers 2

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If the statement in the speech being reported was already past tense, then backshifting will result in a past perfect. Compare:

  1. "I was 14 back then," she said.
  2. She told me that she had been 14 back then.

As with reported present-tense speech, backshifting is generally optional. However, as Huddleston & Pullum (2002) note, backshifting of past-tense speech is less common than with present-tense speech (p. 158). This is for a few reasons:

  1. Because the past perfect is a more complex construction than the simple past, speakers will generally avoid backshifting into the past perfect where possible.
  2. Backshifting is almost always possible with reporting past-tense indirect speech: if the event being reported happened before the report itself, and if the report happened before the present time, then the event also occurred before the present time. So the original (past-tense) statement is still true and valid.
  3. In many cases, you can tell that a simple past statement in indirect speech must a non-backshifted simple past rather than a backshifted simple present, so there is no ambiguity for backshifting to resolve. For instance, "she told me she bought an apple" is obviously reporting the statement "I bought an apple," not the statement "I buy an apple."
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  • The problem with backshifting (1) is that you're not backshifting "back then". So it sounds like "back then" is the time when she was talking to you, and this is confusing. If you take "I was 14 when it happened", you get "She told me she had been 14 when it happened", which sounds much better. And I think (1) is the only one of the OP's sentences that is really problematic. Apr 30, 2023 at 18:39
  • @PeterShor Such constructions can often be ambiguous; it isn't always obvious if the temporal adjunct is part of the speech being reported or if it's giving the time of the speech itself.
    – alphabet
    Apr 30, 2023 at 18:43
  • And this is exactly why (1) is a bad example of backshifting. Apr 30, 2023 at 18:44
  • @PeterShor I don't think that the ambiguity is bad enough to rule out backshifting on its own. Strictly speaking, "she told me she was 14 back then" has a similar ambiguity: did she say "I was 14 back then," or did she, back then, say "I am 14"?
    – alphabet
    Apr 30, 2023 at 18:47
  • I agree. The right thing to do is to remove the ambiguity by rephrasing the words "back then". Apr 30, 2023 at 18:49
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"Had been" says that at that point in the past, the even describes was already in the past. It's the pluperfect tense, aka the "past past".

I heard a loud bang. I had already been awake for an hour, but it startled my wife awake."

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