I’m Going To Report You

Many comments on the use of English amount to little more than the expression of personal preferences and dislikes. We are all, of course, entitled to have them, but it’s a different matter when those who express them insist that their predilections represent The Only True Way, and try to impose them on the rest of us.

I, too, have my irrational prejudices, but I don’t pretend they’re holy writ. I’m not alone. In ‘The Language Instinct’, Steven Pinker confesses his distaste for the use of disinterested to mean ‘apathetic’ (see Caxton’s discussion here). But he redems himself with:

Every component of a language changes over time, and at any moment a language is enduring many losses. But since the human mind does not change over time, the richness of a language is always being replenished.’

I have already mentioned one of my bugaboos, the use of ‘deliver’ to mean ‘provide’. I have taken care to record that my objection to it has no basis in etymology or usage (oh, if only others would do the same).

Here’s another, and it’s in the ‘I was always taught’ category. When direct speech is reported, certain changes occur. If someone says I’m tired, another person reporting what was said will turn it into She said she was tired. I becomes she and ‘m becomes was. The first person pronoun becomes the third person pronoun, and the tense is shifted backwards. As the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ (LSGSWE) has it:

The original speech or thoughts may have been in present tense, but past tense is usually used for the reports.

It continues:

Notice that the circumstances may still be continuing even though past tense is used.

Precisely. In my example, although was is past tense, she may actually still be tired at the time I’m speaking, so we don’t need to say She said she’s tired.

But lo, the LSGSWE also says:

Although this use of past tense in reported speech is common, reported speech also occurs with other tenses. Consider these examples:

She said she feels good now.

Graham said the owls’ messy habit makes them the ideal bird for the study.

Here, the reporting verb (said) is in the past tense, but the verb in the indirect quote remains in the present tense, emphasizing that the circumstances expressed by feels and makes are still continuing.

Hm, perhaps.

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7 Comments

Filed under Grammar

7 responses to “I’m Going To Report You

  1. I teach EFL and a standard exercise in the books available is to convert direct to indirect speech and vice versa and they always give those very “rules”.

    The trouble is that this is not a task that crops up often (if ever) in the real world. When we report speech we don’t apply those rules we invariably paraphrase.

    Even in an example as simple as “She said, ‘I’m tired’, we might report it as “She said she was tired” though we are just as likely to go for a flat “She’s tired”. We could just as easily paraphrase it into “Shesaid she’s exhausted/knackered/dead on her feet/going for a lie down/been overdoing it” or any one of a hundred other things depending entirely on the surrounding circumstances that will be known to us in the real world but not in the context-free examples in the books.

    Going the other way is even more fraught.

    I’ve discussed it at some length in the past on my own blog. My original post, if anyone is interested, is available at

    http://thehittingtheroadagainblues.blogspot.com/2008/04/telling-lies-for-living.html

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  2. You’re right. This was just the first example that came to mind. Of course, the construction also arises with projected clauses that don’t necessarily report speech, such as those introduced by ‘observe’ or ‘notice’.

    Agree with what you say on your blog about lying. I realised in my relatively short period teaching EFL that it was necessary to withhold part of the truth.

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  3. The less temporally contingent the reported sentence, the less likely people are to apply the “sequence of tenses” rule. You probably wouldn’t say She said that two and two was four.

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    • Oh, I think I would!

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      • Especially something like “She said that two and two was four and I said no it was five and she said I was crazy.”

        This is something I think about all the time, because Russian doesn’t do sequencing of tenses (“He told me that he will come nest week” is a common thing), so translators have to change the tense in the original to match what’s normal in English. And many junior translators or intermediate learners are very reluctant to do that.

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