Reported speech and sequence of tenses
Grammatically speaking, reported or indirect speech means one person is communicating another’s ideas, but not the exact words — in short, paraphrasing. The concept is important in journalism because, well, journalists report a lot of speech. Often we do it in direct quotes:
“Come on, Charlie Brown,” Lucy said. “I’ll hold the ball and you kick it.”
There’s no need to worry about tenses in direct quotes, since you’re simply quoting the speaker’s words, or when the main verb is in present tense:
Lucy says she is holding the ball.
Lucy says she will hold the ball.
But if you’re writing in past tense, as journalists usually do, you need to master backshifting. That is, if the main verb of the sentence is in past tense — as in a simple, common attribution like he said — the verb of the subordinate clause telling what he said needs to shift back one more tense into the past:
Lucy said she had been holding the ball for 15 minutes.
Lucy said she would hold the ball. (In this case, would is past tense of will.)
Charlie Brown, Lucy and that football come from the classic comic strip “Peanuts,” a newspaper staple for decades. Here are more journalistic illustrations from a recent J-school graduate, assigned an exercise in writing indirect speech based on a statement by former Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen.
She said the Federal Reserve had decided to begin the balance sheet normalization in October.
Correct. Yellen made the statement at a particular time in the past; she was speaking about something that had happened before that time. Therefore the sequence of tenses is simple past, past perfect.
But when the attribution is done parenthetically — that is, set off with commas in the middle or at the end of the sentence — no backshifting is needed:
The Fed expects the economy to continue expanding at a moderate pace over the next few years, Yellen said.
When activity resumes, she said, growth is likely to bounce back.
Those are the rules: now, the inevitable exceptions.
For those learning English, past perfect is the most difficult tense, in part because native speakers so often don’t follow the rules. Take this sentence from a New York Times report on this week’s train crash in West Virginia:
The White House said that at least one person was killed and another seriously injured . . .
Note that the writer told what happened in simple past, even though it followed “the White House said.” Technically, it would have been more correct to say one person had been killed. But very often that’s not how we write news.
Now look at the full sentence:
The White House said that at least one person was killed and another seriously injured, and that none of the lawmakers or their staff members had been injured.
Notice that the verb in the first subordinate clause is simple past and the verb in the second — had been injured — is past perfect. Since this is a case of parallel structure, the tenses should have matched. I vote for none of the lawmakers or their staff members were injured.
Suppose what the speaker said in the past continues to be true in the present. From the Yellen assignment:
She said the committee believes this year’s shortfall in inflation reflected developments unrelated to broader economic conditions.
Shouldn’t it be believed? New York Times style on sequence of tenses would say yes, but other publications may differ. (AP’s Ask the Editor would even disagree with me on the first Yellen quote above.) The Wikipedia explanation of reported speech recognizes an exception: “when a general truth is expressed.”
He said North Korea is a danger to the U.S. This sentence says North Korea remains a danger, as opposed to:
He said North Korea was a danger to the U.S. This one implies that it may no longer be a danger.
Therefore, Yellen said, the committee did not plan on making adjustments to the balance sheet normalization program.
My question, given the parenthetical attribution, was, “Did or does?” Was that the plan at a particular point in the past, or is it still the committee’s plan? The writer clarified by choosing did.
Sequence of tenses also applies to conditionals — sentences with subordinate clauses imposing conditions on the main clause, indicated by conditional conjunctions like if, unless, assuming, in case, provided, so long as, whenever and wherever.
This sentence became a catchphrase in 1989 with the release of the movie “Field of Dreams”:
If you build it, he will come. Referring to a real possibility (though not in the context of this fantasy movie). But:
If you built it, he would come. A more speculative possibility.
If you had built it, he would have come. But you didn’t, so he didn’t.
One J-school graduate practiced sequence of tenses in terms of being asked at a job interview about her preferred beat:
If he asks me what I would like to cover, I will choose . . . (The interview hasn’t happened yet, and he is likely to ask.)
If he asked me, I would choose . . . (It hasn’t happened yet, but she’s not sure he’ll ask.)
If he had asked me, I would have chosen . . . (The interview is over, and he didn’t ask.)
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