“ARE there any rules prescribing when to use present-tense reporting verbs over past-tense reporting verbs? Also, can’t we just use past-tense reporting verbs at all times so that whatever is being reported can just be construed as an event in the past?”
These perplexing questions were posted in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently by member Michael E. Galario, and I must admit that it took me quite sometime to figure out how to answer them with adequate instructive precision.
To the first question, I don’t know of any prescriptions when to use present-tense reporting verbs over past-tense reporting verbs. It entirely depends on the expository or narrative style used, the medium or mode of communication, and personal choice.
To put things in perspective, we use what’s called reported speech or indirect speech when we report what someone else has said or written but don’t use the exact words uttered. Perhaps we can’t remember the exact words or just want to clarify the sense or the verbatim statement.
The pivotal factor in reported speech is the tense of the reporting verb. When the reporting verb is in the simple present tense, the operative verb in the reported statement remains unchanged; often, only the pronouns in the quoted statement are changed.
Think of yourself as an impartial observer in a news conference and you heard a TV reporter ask the proclaimed winner: “Mr. President, how will you deal with Cabinet secretaries who are nonperforming? Will you give them a deadline, like, for example, six months to perform? And if they don’t give a good performance, what will you do to them?”
I can imagine you’ll be using the simple present tense for the reporting verb when you informally recount to a friend what you heard, perhaps as follows: “This TV reporter asks the President-elect how he will deal with Cabinet secretaries who are nonperforming, and precisely what he will do to them.”
This present-tense telling is in many ways similar to the stream of consciousness technique, which is the continuous unedited chronological flow of conscious experience through the mind that we often come across in literary fiction. It’s practically the same as a direct quote except for the obligatory ID of the speaker (“this TV reporter”) and of the person addressed (“the President-elect” instead of “you”) and the change in pronouns in the quoted utterance.
However, things in reported speech become more iffy when a past-tense reporting verb is used. The general rule is for the operative verb in the reported statement to move one tense backward, as in this reported statement: “The TV reporter asked the President-elect how he would deal with Cabinet secretaries who are nonperforming, and precisely how he would deal with those who are nonperforming.” Note that the present-tense “will” has become the past-tense “would.”
When the reporting verb is in the past tense, the so-called normal sequence-of-tenses rule generally applies for the reported utterance itself: it takes one step back from the present into the past. Thus, the present becomes past, the past usually stays in the past, the present perfect becomes past perfect, and the future becomes future conditional. But keep in mind that this rule applies only when the action in the reported statement is a completed or consummated one. When the action in the reported statement is a conditional or a repeated or habitual one, the changes in tense get more complicated <http://tinyurl.com/zs6xv88>.
Finally, as to the second question, it is too restrictive and misleading to use only past-tense reporting verbs such that whatever is being reported can just be construed as an event in the past. This is because no matter what reporting tense is used, the actual time-frame of the action being reported must always be made clear to avoid confusing the listener or reader.
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