Which version is the correct indirect form of this sentence:

The boss said, “It’s time we began planning our work”.

1. The boss said that it was time they began planning their work.

2. The boss said that it was time they had begun planning their work.

As per the usual rule, past simple should be turned into past perfect and the correct answer would be the second sentence. However, the simple past tense in the original sentence actually refers to present time, and the 2nd version of indirect form sounds off to me. So, I think the first one is actually the correct form and the second one is incorrect, but I'm not sure. I know it can simply be rephrased as "The boss said that it was time for them to begin planning their work.", but I want to which one of the two I've mentioned above is correct.

  • 1
    The past perfect pushes one action further in the past than another action. Here, the boss wants to begin soon, not referring to some earlier beginning. Past perfect is a bad choice. Jun 14 at 21:20
  • 1
    I don't think any of the ”duplicates” address backshift. Correct: The boss said [that] it was time [that] they began planning their work. You don’t need to backshift the that-clause within a that-clause. Jun 15 at 2:29
  • The boss's statement is possible but a bit problematic. (You note that "the simple past tense in the original sentence actually refers to present time".) It would be more natural for him or her to say, “It’s time we begin planning our work”. Jun 15 at 8:15
  • 1
    @MarcInManhattan: Leonard Cohen disagrees :-). In general "It's time X began ..." is an idiom; if you want to use "begin" in this instance it would be far more normal to say "It's time to begin planning our work".
    – psmears
    Jun 15 at 8:29
  • @psmears The first thing that I noted was that the boss's formulation was possible. I'm not saying that it's wrong at all. Jun 15 at 8:37

2 Answers 2


There's a misconception that every sentence using a quote structure has one and only one 'correct' form/transform/equivalent using a report structure. This theory certainly falls down for quote structures containing exclamatory utterances, for example

  • "Yee-haw!" cried Joseph.

(see FumbleFinger's answer at Direct Speech to Indirect Speech).

Deictics within the quote also pose problems:

  • "Is Jim here?" asked Jill. [locative 'here' cannot be retained in a report version]
  • "What's that smell?" asked Bill. [locative 'that' cannot really be retained in a report version]
  • "My back hurts" moaned Bob. [possessive 'my' cannot be retained in a report version]
  • "We need it now!" she protested. [temporal 'now' cannot be retained in a report version]
  • "We will need it tomorrow," he explained. [temporal 'tomorrow' cannot be retained in a report version]

Fixes here may (→ 'there'/ → ? / → 'his' / → 'then'/ → 'the next day') or may not be simple.

As a report usually looks back at an utterance, temporal deixis is very often problematic.

  • He said "I feel sick."

is readily converted to a report form, most commonly with backshifting:

  • He said that he felt sick.

but also, if the statement is still relevant, alternatively with the present simple:

  • He said that he feels sick [ ... that's why he's gone to see matron].

Sometimes, fixed expressions connected (perhaps loosely) to locatives / directionals / temporals are hard to 'convert':

  • "What's this I hear about you and Cinderella?" asked Bill.

A complication involved in OP's example here is that the intro 'It's time that I / you / he/she/it / we / they' usually take a verb in the simple past.

As Rachel, a moderator at The Grammar Exchange explains (though the mention of 'conditional' here is probably unhelpful: 'counterfactual', yes):

"It's time (that)" and "it's about time (that)" introduce a kind of conditional clause, a present contrary-to-fact situation. It's similar to saying "I wish (that)" + the conditional. Past verb forms are used to express a present time, although they may also refer to the future:

  • It's time you cleaned this carpet, don't you think?
  • It's time that we had a talk. I have something important to say.
  • It's about time he found a wife and settled down. ...

So logically, one might expect

  • The boss said, “It’s time we began planning our work.”

to use a backshift in a report equivalent.

But the only semi-relevant hit I've found for "time we had begun" (ie including it's) in a Google ngram search for time we began,time we had begun refers to its inclusion as a possible correct answer in the original of this question.

So it would seem that in practice the inflexibility of the expression 'It's time we + V-ed' overrides the tempting logical step of backshifting. This leaves

    1. The boss said that it was time they began planning their work.

as being probably the answer the examiners are after,

Though as @alphabet advises, a rewrite would be a better solution (but examiners tend to be at least as inflexible as fixed expressions).

  • 1
    "He told me that he wished that it were so" doesn't enjoy having had been further backed nor shifted.
    – tchrist
    Jun 15 at 15:50
  • OP doesn't mention any examiners being involved; we don't know if this is a test question or if they just want writing/proofreading advice.
    – alphabet
    Jun 15 at 15:53
  • SSC CGL Preparatory Guide: English {Part 1} ... Dr. DK Sukhani would indicate it's from a test. Jun 15 at 15:58
  • I don't think we can give the "right answer" to an ill-conceived exam question; you'd need to be able to determine in what precise way the examiner got things wrong.
    – alphabet
    Jun 15 at 16:00
  • ... Yes; sometimes the only thing to say to an OP is 'the question does not have a satisfactory answer'. But while it is polite and reasonable to address questions proper, even ill-formed ones can lead to interesting discussions on English usage ... the principal aim of the site. Perhaps ill-formed questions should be closed and well-formed ones leading to the same discussions be opened. Often it's just the 'Which of A, B, C ... is the correct answer?' that needs replacing. Jun 15 at 18:25

This usage of "it's time" with a simple past verb is something of a fixed idiom; you can't readily shift it into the past tense. The best option is to turn it into an infinitive:

The boss said that it was time for them to begin planning their work.

  • That changes the sense. Jun 15 at 13:33
  • @TinfoilHat I don't think it does. I believe that "it's time we began" and "it's time for us to begin" have the same meaning, except that the former is a bit more emphatic and less formal.
    – alphabet
    Jun 15 at 15:52
  • It’s time we began, like It’s high time we began, is an idiomatic turn of phrase that means, roughly, We’d better get going because we are, or are about to be, running behind. Jun 15 at 23:24

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