1

Actually, I teach English language for 12 years, but today I got confused when I tried to report this sentence:

William: 'I lived in China until I was fifteen.'
William said that he had lived in China until he was fifteen.

The problem is that if we want to report a sentence, we have to change the verb tense. For example, the past simple will be changed to the past perfect simple. I see the example above doesn't follow the rule. I mean if we change the tense from the past simple tense to the past perfect tense, the sentence will be:

William said that he had lived in China until he had been fifteen.

So can you please explain that to me?

5
  • 4
    The problem is that if we want to report a sentence, we have to change the verb tense. -- The real problem that this is not true. It is general guidance; it is not a rule. A common exception to the rule is known a "the eternal truth". -- A: "The world is not flat." -- B: "What did you say?" -- A: "I said that The world is not flat." The fact that William left China when he was 15 years old is true no matter when it is said.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 11, 2022 at 10:22
  • Your first attempt was good. Go with that.
    – Lambie
    Apr 11, 2022 at 16:45
  • I have taught OR have been teaching English for 5 years., A present simple can never ever be used with time periods, unless you are using the very fancy historical present.
    – Lambie
    Apr 11, 2022 at 16:55
  • He said he [had] left school at age 15. Both versions are fine, (and can mean exactly the same). Apr 11, 2022 at 18:03
  • My answer is supported and I copied faithfully the quotations, which includes the use of curly quotes (my personal preference) and single quotes used by the authors in their authoritative books. If you disagree with the answer that's fine. I enjoyed doing the research and hope it will help future visitors.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 12, 2022 at 10:54

2 Answers 2

1

When constructing indirect speech, changing the simple past or the past progressive to the past perfect or the past perfect progressive is not always necessary.

1.a “I was hungry” said Joe. (direct speech)
1.b Joe said he was hungry. (Indirect speech)

2.a “I got married when I was just 17” she said.
2.b She told me that she was 17 when she got married.

3.a Journalist: “When did you and Mel meet for the first time?”
Rory: “We were both studying in Oxford when we MET.”
3.b He told the journalist they HAD MET when they were studying in Oxford.
3.c He told the journalist they MET when they were studying in Oxford.

Most of the verbs in the direct speech examples are in the simple past, these do not need to change tense in indirect speech (also known as ‘reported speech’) because the actions they refer to happened in the past. An exception can be seen in 3.b where the meeting and the studying both occurred in the past but the meeting happened before the two people had completed their studies. However, changing the tenses is still not obligatory as shown in 3c. The sentence is natural for the situation being described.

Under Chapter 31, Indirect Speech, the authors of APEG 1 explain [emphasis in bold mine]:

309 Past Tenses sometimes remain unchanged

C In written English past tenses usually do change to past perfect but there are the following exceptions:

  1. Past/Past continuous tenses in time clauses do not normally change:
  • He said, ‘When we were living/lived in Paris…’= He said that when they were living/lived in Paris

The main verb of such sentences can either remain unchanged or become the past perfect:

  • He said,When we were living/lived in Paris we often saw Paul.’=
  • He said that when they were living/lived in Paris they often saw /had often seen Paul.
  1. A past tense used to describe a state of affairs which still exists when the speech is reported remains unchanged.
  • She said, ‘I decided not to buy the house because it was on a main road’ = She said that she had decided not to buy the house because it was on a main road.

In AGIU 2 the author confirms that if the situation being described happened in the past and has not changed, the past simple can be used instead of the past perfect.

45 Verb tense in that-clauses

(D)

  • ‘I learnt how to eat with chopsticks when I was in Hong Kong’ ➞ Mary said that she had learnt/learnt how to eat with chopsticks when she was in Hong Kong.
  • ‘I posted the card yesterday.’ ➞ She reassured me that she had posted/posted the card.

The same piece of advice is provided by the author of EGIU 3 4th Ed. in unit 47, section C and by Michael Swan, the author of PEG 4, who says under the entry of reported speech

It is important to realise that the tenses in reported speech are not ‘special’. They are (almost always) just the normal tenses for the situation we are talking about. Compare:

  • She was tired so she went home
  • She said she was tired and she went home.

The first sentence describes the event using the simple past tense, the second sentence uses the same tense in reported speech because we are still talking about the past.

Martin Parrott, the author of GFELT 5, in chapter 18 writes:

Choosing between past simple and past perfect

Sometimes, a sequence of events may be so clear in the context that we don't need to make this additionally clear in the tenses we choose. For example, the following is from a report of the victim of a mugging describing how he was attacked. The past simple is used for both the reporting verb said and for the much earlier events was hit and were tied (had been hit… and had been tied… are possible but unnecessary alternatives).

He said he was hit over the head with a hefty object and struck fairly smartly between the legs, while his hands were tied behind his back with telephone wire.

Conclusion

It is an oversimplification that the tenses must always change when converting direct speech into reported speech. These tips are often found in student school books, which serve to guide learners and students alike but often lead to dogmatic rules “The problem is that if we want to report a sentence, we have to change the verb tense.” This “rule” is unsupported by the majority of the most renowned authors of English grammar books.

References

  1. A Practical English Grammar 4th Ed (1985). By A.J.Thomson and A.V.Martinet
  2. Advanced Grammar in Use (199) By Martin Hewings
  3. English Grammar in Use (2012) By Raymond Murphy
  4. Practical English Usage (1980) By Michael swan
  5. Grammar for English Language Teachers (2010) By Martin Parrott
5
  • This does not address the core issue, the unacceptability of the 'until he had been fifteen' string (whether in reported speech or not). Apr 11, 2022 at 13:53
  • 'The core problem for the OP is that "For example, the past simple will be changed to the past perfect simple" Which I addressed clearly in my answer.' ... And others have clearly addressed in previous ones. The issue which remains an ELU topic (unless I've missed duplicates here) is the acceptability of 'until he had been fifteen' anywhere in a non-contrived sentence. Apr 11, 2022 at 14:13
  • You have outdone yourself, my dear. The reason that "until he had been fifteen" is unnecessary here is that one becomes some age, once, and at a fixed point in time in this case.
    – Lambie
    Apr 11, 2022 at 17:08
  • 1
    @Lambie I also provided examples where the simple past does not need to change in reported speech because I would not want the OP to think the exception lies only with the age of someone. There are other exceptions.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 11, 2022 at 17:13
  • Yes, Mari-Lou, when something occurs at a fixed point in time. A one-off event. William said that he had bought clothes in London when he went there. Right? He went there three times.
    – Lambie
    Apr 11, 2022 at 17:30
0

The problem is the 'until he had been fifteen' string.

  1. There's nothing wrong with the 'had been fifteen' string in certain sentences:
  • He had been fifteen when he had first noticed that people were gradually leaving the village. [though past simple is usually chosen where no loss of clarity occurs]
  1. There's nothing wrong with the 'until he had been' etc string:
  • He had had no fear of animals until he had been bitten by a dog.
  • They were quarantined until they had been checked for Covid.

But notice that 'had been bitten' and 'had been checked' are punctive (happening in an instant, or near enough) rather than stative. This is not true with 'until he had been fifteen'. 'Until X had been' requires a punctive verb, not word/s expressing a state..

  • *The Blue Morpho had been remarkably ugly until it had been an imago. [the adult butterfly form]
  • The Blue Morpho had been remarkably ugly until it had become an imago.
  • The Blue Morpho had been remarkably ugly until it had metamorphosed.
  • ??/*William said that he had lived in China until he had been fifteen.
  • William said that he had lived in China until he had reached the age of fifteen.
3
  • The core problem for the OP is that "For example, the past simple will be changed to the past perfect simple" Which I addressed clearly in my answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 11, 2022 at 14:01
  • And others have clearly addressed in previous ones. The issue which remains an ELU topic (unless I've missed duplicates here) is the acceptability of 'until he had been fifteen' anywhere in a non-contrived sentence." What would the examples cited in your answer be if they were transposed into direct speech? I don't see a single example in your answer. The dilemma, which was expressed clearly by the OP, is transforming direct speech into reported speech.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 11, 2022 at 14:44
  • 'William said that he had lived in China until he was fifteen.' is fine, ELL standard? Certainly duplicate. Backshifting unnecessary, which gets round the core problem. 'William said that he had lived in China until he had turned / reached the age of fifteen' are fine, with the optional backshifting licensed by the punctive (inchoative here) verbs. 'William said that he had lived in China until he had been fifteen' is not available, as detailed above. Apr 11, 2022 at 14:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.