B is for Backshift

6 03 2011

Last week the BBC website broadcast the following news item:

28 February 2011 Last updated at 18:08 GMT

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has told the BBC he was loved by all his people and refused to acknowledge there had been any protests in Tripoli.

Col Gaddafi said that his people would die to protect him.

Oddly, the printable version of the same story was subtly different:

28 February 2011 Last updated at 18:08 GMT

Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi has told the BBC he is loved by all his people and has denied there have been any protests in Tripoli.

Col Gaddafi said that his people would die to protect him.

Me and the Colonel

Notice the difference? In the webpage version the writer uses backshift (“…he was loved…”) whereas in the printable version he/she does not: “…he is loved…”

In fact, it was the “he was loved” that first attracted my attention, because of its (deliberate?) ambiguity. He was loved, but no longer? When I went to print the story out, I noticed that the text had been (deliberately?) disambiguated: He is loved.

And, in the same week, I received an email in which the writer wrote:

I picked up the phone and had the pleasure of surprising XXXX … it was soon enough established that he had not forgotten who I was – or should that be ‘am’? –

All of which reminded me of a promise I made to a reader of this blog, some time ago, to answer the following question:

There is this pattern in English that (go back one tense) of using a remote tense

a) if we want to be polite (from present to past)

b) if we want to move from reality and be imaginative (conditional one to conditional two)

c) in reported statements.

So, I was thinking how many different patterns (or grammatical structures), there are in English where one has to move back?

Let’s start with the last first, i.e. the use of backshift in reported speech. Here is how the rule is stated in one pedagogical grammar:

In indirect speech we do not usually repeat the speaker’s exact words.  Reporting usually takes place in the past, so the reporting verb is often in the past. As a result, the tenses of the reporting clause are usually ‘moved back’.  This ‘moving back’ of tenses is called backshift.  A useful general rule is ‘present becomes past and past becomes past perfect'” (Alexander, 1988, p.290).

This is one of those ‘rules’, though, that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, especially in spoken language, where there is a preference anyway for direct speech:

So he says, my people love me. They will die to protect me.

And even when indirect speech is used, there is often a tendency to ignore backshift:

He said that his people love him. And that they will die to protect him.

Tower Junction, Nagercoil: the deictic centre?

In written English, too, the backshift rule operates only if there is temporal distance. Take the sentence that begins a journal entry by Paul Bowles (‘Notes mailed at Nagercoil’  in Their Heads Are Green, 1963):

I have been here in this hotel now for a week.

How would we report that? If you were sitting a grammar test, you’d be wise to transpose it to:

He said he’d been in that hotel then for a week.

But what if the person doing the reporting is not only in the same hotel, but reporting the speaker’s utterance more or less at the time that it is uttered?

He said he’s been in this hotel now for a week.

In other words, reporting has to obey – not the grammar book rules –  but the rules that the context imposes. Even Alexander (1988) acknowledges the fact that “a speaker can choose to report a statement or a question using the tenses that match his viewpoint, based on the facts of the situation as he sees them at the time of speaking” (p.293). That is to say, if there is distance, mark it. If not, don’t.

Which, after all, is why we use the past tense to talk about the past, not so much because the past tense flags pastness, but because it flags distance.

His people love him (now).

His people loved him (then).

This is distance in time. But (as my correspondent noted) the –ed form is also used to flag distance in reality:

He wishes his people still loved him.

If only his people loved him now.

And, finally, the past form is occasionally used to establish social distance, i.e.  as a way of marking politeness:

I’m sorry, what was your name?

I was wondering if you have this in a smaller size?

All of which suggests that we might be better off following the example of a number of linguists (e.g. Lewis, 1986;Yule 1998, ) by referring to the –ed form, not as the past tense, but as the remote form.

And it also suggests that, when teaching reported speech, we should heed the advice of Mike McCarthy:

“Teaching speech reporting should not be over-obsessed with backshift and sequence of tenses with indirect speech at the expense of the rich variety of tense and aspect forms that real data throw up” (McCarthy 1998, p.172).


Alexander, L. (1988) Longman English Grammar. London: Longman.

Lewis, M. (1986) The English Verb. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

McCarthy, M.  (1998). Spoken Language and Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yule, G. (1998). Explaining English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



27 responses

6 03 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Thanks, Scott.

Yes, it does seem like referring to second form verbs as ‘past’ needlessly confuses matters. Why call it ‘past’ if we are simply hypothesizing or just trying to be polite?

I wonder why the term ‘remote form’ has not yet become standard – it has certaintly been avdocated for some time now.

What do you reckon?


6 03 2011

Perhaps because it takes an imaginative leap to understand the notion of remoteness and because it’s maybe a concept that’s not that easy to explain to learners

6 03 2011
Katherine Afanasiyeva

And because we first teach elementary students the past tense – not the remote tense. 🙂 When later on they start learning the subjunctive and the politeness formulae, they will recognize “past” in them.

6 03 2011

True, though Michael Lewis insists that even the past tense is about remoteness

C.f. I’ve seen that film. I saw that film

7 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Michael Lewis (among others) argues that the -ed form is deictic – deixis being the way we ‘point’ with language, either in space or in time, or at one another. Deixis distinguishes been near (proximal) and far (distal). Proximal terms include here, now and I (which identify the ‘deictic centre’ – the speaker/writer’s point of orientation: I’ve been in this hotel now for a week). Their distal equivalents are there, then, and he/she. Verb forms are also part of the equation, thus go is proximal and went is distal: Every day he goes to work; Yesterday he went to work. Likewise, the present perfect is proximal (it’s connected to the deictic centre): He’s gone to work (implication: he’s still there). Contrast the distal He went to work (no such implication). But distance can also be a question of non-reality, as in If he went to work tomorrow he’d be a fool, because tomorrow is Sunday.

So, the argument goes that backshift is the use of distal forms to encode distance – temporal, spatial or social.

Note, by the way, how, in some languages, third person (distal) forms are used to signal social distance: ¿Es Usted el profesor?

6 03 2011
Stephanie Ashford

It’s a similar problem with conditionals and the subjunctives, where learners must find it odd that we use the simple past form to express things that aren’t related to the past (“If I were/was a fish, I would live in a fish bowl”, “If only I had more time next week”, “I wish I didn’t have to get up so early tomorrow.” ).

Now, I’m way out of my depth here, but this probably has something to do with the Germanic roots of English. For reported speech, conditionals, wishes, etc., Germans use the subjunctive (which they call it the Konjunktiv I) instead of the indicative, e.g. ‘sei’ instead of ‘ist’, ‘wäre’ instead of ‘war’, ‘hätte’ instead of ‘hat’, etc. I explain to my students that the English language has lost these Konjunktiv equivalents and gets by with past forms instead.

This reasoning seems to satisfy my explanation-seeking German-speaking students, at least. Whether it’s right is another matter…!

6 03 2011

Spanish uses a past form for ‘second’ conditional: the past subjunctive.

6 03 2011

Thanks for that enjoyable read!

Indeed past tense doesn’t just refer to past, does it? The past can even be a sort of present, the present can refer to the future, etc. It’s confusing to convey this to students. At least how I’m stammer my interpretation.

Food for thought, here.

6 03 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Glennie makes a good point: time is a more accessible notion for most people than distance. In fact, languages confound this issue with their labeling: In German, for example, the word for “tense” is “zeitform” – literally “timeform”. Would eliminating the word “tense” help matters, I wonder…

6 03 2011
Mr Darkbloom

“Would eliminating the word “tense” help matters, I wonder…”

Mmn… Interesting line of thought, Anthony.

But, we would still have the labels ‘past, present, future’ to contend with.


6 03 2011
Katherine Afanasiyeva

I tell my students there’s no “future tense” at all – instead, we study timetables, decisions, promises etc. In addition, some authors and coursebooks, like Cutting Edge, draw the distinction between “time” and “tense” (at advanced levels), although I’m not really sure it helps rather than making simple things nore complicated. In Russian we have similar “past time” forms to express exactly the same: politeness, imaginary events, subjunctive – so that helps.

7 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, it’s always a bit of a shock to students — and to trainee teachers — to be told that there is no one-to-one relationship between time and tense. In other words, the presence of a past tense form does not necessarily mean past reference, nor does it mean that, to express future reference, you necessarily use a future form.

6 03 2011
Julian Gilbert

We’re over-complicating this. The backshift should only be used in reported speech if the facts being reported are not still true at the moment of reporting.
So “he said that he is in love” is correct if he is still in love now.

If he’s not still in love, then “he said that he was in love” would be correct.
In real life, when we report what someone has said, it’s quite often still true. Therefore, most commonly we wouldn’t use backshift in normal speech.

Backshift in reported speech is one of those classroom things teachers love but not much use in real life, IMHO.

7 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Julian — George Yule, in Explaining English Grammar (OUP, 1998) says much the same thing: “The forms used in a reported version of previous talk can vary a great deal and typically depend on the perspective of the reporter. If the speaker thinks that the situation being reported is still true at the time of the report, then there may be no backshifting… Generally, the form of the indirect speech version will reflect the reporter’s sense of closeness or distance between the situation being reported and the current reporting situation. The greater the distance between them, the more likely it is that [back shifting] will be found” (p.272-3).

7 03 2011
Jeremy Taylor

One thing that many foreigners miss is the slight pause native speakers make when choosing not to use backshift.

Woman: “I’m going to Prague on business.”
Deaf grandfather: What did she say?
Man: She said (slight pause) she’s going to Prague for her holidays.

Interestingly, a slight pause when using backshift…

Man: She said (slight pause) she was going to Prague on business.

…would imply that she has changed her plans. She was going to Prague but now she’s changed her mind.

7 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

Interesting, Jeremy — I’ve never noticed this before. Is this your intuition, or has this been studied?

On a related note, is the use of discourse markers to flag direct speech quotation. In our book, Conversation (CUP, 2006), we comment that:

Another feature of speech reporting in the extract [below] is the use of discourse markers to launch direct speech quotations (and, in the absence of verbal “speech marks”, perhaps to make it clear that what follows is direct speech):

Yeah, you know they have to be done and Joanne came up and she said “oh, can you do this?” and I said “well you’re at the end of a very long line if you’re prepared to wait” and she said “well, she’s at the Oncology clinic right now” and I said “but these have to be done as well” and sort of smiling all the way through it I said “look, you know it’s three minutes to three Liz should be down in a minute if you want to wait till then.” and she went ahhh [huffing sound] then she went away and I thought “oh yeah, end of the = = story.”


Note also the use of the verb go as a ‘quotative’: “She went ahhh”. Note also how we often report out thoughts as direct speecch:

I thought “oh yeah, end of the = = story”

7 03 2011
Jeremy Taylor

Just intuition I’m afraid. I think the pause could be for the listener to appreciate that speech marks are being inserted.

7 03 2011
Stephanie Ashford

By using direct speech in this way, the speaker can mimic facial expressions and gestures in a way that wouldn’t be possible in reported speech.

I wonder whether the Valley Girl use of ‘like’ is a similar kind of discourse marker, as in “So he’s like ‘No WAY am I going do that!’ and I’m like ‘So what’s the big deal?’ and he’s like “Okay, WHATEVER.”

7 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

The Valley Girl use of ‘like’ as a quotative has extended beyond the Valley, you’ll find!

Yule (1998) suggests that, at least in some cases, “the use of be like is an indication that we have to interpret what is being reported in direct speech form as an approximate reconstruction rather than an exact word-for-word account of what was said”. He also has some examples which demonstrate the creative use of tense to mark background and foreground:

He’s like, ‘You an LSU student?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ cause you know he’s an older man and I’m giving him some respect, and he’s like, ‘Know anybody who wants an apartment?’ I was like, ‘Maybe’ and he’s like, ‘How about $175 for an efficiency?’ And I was like, ‘Well let me see it.’

Yule comments that “it is interesting that… the speaker maintains the use of the past tense in the quotative frames for her own reported contributions (as background) and the present tense in the frames introducing what was said by the other speaker (as foreground). This example fits a general pattern in English of present tense introducing the speech of authority figures and past tense for non-authority figures in reported interactions” (p.284).

All of which reminds me of one of my favourite New Yorker cartoons.

8 03 2011
Nick Bilbrough

…so Little Red Riding Hood told her grandmother what big eyes she had.

…so little Red Riding Hood said to her grandmother, ‘Wow! Grandmother! What big eyes you have!’

If direct speech is more common, and if it tends to make the telling of a story or anecdote more interesting (see examples above), I guess it’s often better to prioritise practice in effective use of direct speech, over getting learners to do backshift transformation exercises which are less immediately usable.

7 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

As a follow up, I decide to check, using the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) at http://www.americancorpus.org/, the relative frequencies of these strings:

told [pronoun] she/he is
told [pronoun] she/he was
said she/he is
said she/he was

The combinations of past tense reporting verb plus past tense of the verb to be were 7.5 times more frequent than past tense + present.

This doesn’t mean a great lot, though, as I didn’t take into account the what the time reference was, in the case of the past tense clauses (e.g. She said she was married – did she mean ‘still married’, or ‘once married’?). Nevertheless, there are still quite a few (1361) instances of told/said + is.

Here is a selection:

at age 60 he told me he is an incredibly happy person
The Police Chief told me he is putting his forces on alert.
But Stan told us he is severely dyslexic.
I told you she is young in mind if not in body.
Goldman’s wife called him and said she is staying in Brazil and never coming back
Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton said she is optimistic about Tuesday’s upcoming primaries
Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente said he is upset that the city staff delayed hiring the guards
From jail, Jose Alvarado said he is wracked with remorse and desperate to get out.
The president said he is willing to compromise with Congress

9 03 2011

I wonder how much the register of the text would affect the use of backshift…? Any takers?

10 03 2011
Scott Thornbury

I wish I had some stats for you, Delpha, but it makes sense that the more formal the register, the more likely the use of backshift. Certainly, the examples (above) that I dredged up from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (where there was no backshift) were often either spoken or from informal written genres – but not all of them. I also think that if what is being reported is a state, rather than an event, it is more likely to resist backshift, e.g. The president said he is willing to compromise with Congress.

11 03 2011

The best introduction I found for deixis in reported speech (after concluding it was barely worth the effort with lower level learners) was this in
“Teaching Grammar Creatively” By Günter Gerngross, Herbert Puchta, Scott Thornbury – have never shown that graphic to a student and had them fail to make the correct changes. Dave Willis’ fabulous rant on reported speech is well worth a look (if you have a copy lying about the staff room or a subscription)

4 04 2011

Thank you all very much for this wonderful discussion.

Just a thought; Arabic language as an example, does not have this form of shifting between past and present to signify social distance (remoteness) instead they rely one a fixed set of expressions such as ‘I wish’. We find that this is very frequently used in spoken as well as written Arabic.

Back-shifting, is not however, restricted to direct and indirect speech. Rob Batstone mentions other areas that need attention such as: temporal distance, social distance, psychological distance and hypothetical distance.
All relate to spoken language, and social discourse. Personally, I like the so-called psychological distance, but how could I explain this to my second language learners?
Any leads?

5 05 2011

As with all aspects of grammar, I feel it’s important to remind learners of the fact that learning (maybe not the right term but you get it) grammar does not involve studying once, learning the rule and applying. It’s an on-going process, which will unfortunately never end. The fact that a group of ESL teachers are commenting on a webpage like this is proof that even we, the teachers, are still undergoing the process of understanding grammar. So for students, they must be made aware that regular exposure to the target language is vital and over time, their understanding will be built up. Exposure (in realistic and clear contexts) + time = greater understanding.

25 04 2015

In indirect speech if the reported words are still true at the time of reporting then we do not have to back shift the tenses. This is what every grammar books says.
For example –
John said that Canberra is the capital of Australia. (At the time of reporting it is still true that Canberra is the capital of Australia.)
John said that water boils at 100 degrees. (At the time of reporting it is still true that water boils at 100 degrees.)
John said that he is hungry.(At the time of reporting it is still true that John is hungry.)
John said that he lives in London.(At the time of reporting it is still true that John lives in London.)

In all these above examples tenses are not changed because at the time of reporting, reported words are still true.

Now lets take the case of present perfect tense –
1a) John said that he has finished his work. (Direct speech – John : “I have finished my work”)
1b) John said that he has written a letter. (Direct speech – John : “I have written a letter.”)

If the reported words are still true at the time of reporting then we do not have to back shift the tenses. So by this logic one can argue that present perfect tenses will never have to back shift because it is and will always be true that John has written a letter and John has finished his work.
A past is always true even a century later.
So is this logic correct ?
Please advise me on it.
Thank you.

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