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).

References:

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.