Sunday, November 29, 2020

The correct tense for reporting verbs in reported speech


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These two perplexing grammar questions were raised sometime ago in the forum: “Are there any prescribed rules for 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?”

Admittedly, it took me quite a while to answer these questions of forum member Michael Galario with adequate instructive precision. I really wasn’t aware of any definitive prescriptions for using present-tense reporting verbs instead of past-tense reporting verbs. To my mind that would entirely depend on the expository or narrative style used, the medium or mode of communication, and personal choice.

What was clear to me was that English grammar uses reported speech or indirect speech for recounting what somebody has said or written, but not using his or her exact words. Perhaps the reporter can’t remember the actual words or just want to clarify the sense of the speaker’s remarks. In any case, the pivotal factor in reported speech is the tense of the reporting verb. When it’s in the simple present tense, the operative verb in the reported statement remains unchanged; typically, only the pronouns in the quoted statement change.

Assume that you were an impartial observer in a news conference and you heard a TV reporter ask the newly proclaimed winner in a presidential election: “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?”

You’ll likely be using the simple present tense for the reporting verb when you informally recount to a friend what you heard, maybe as follows: “This reporter on TV asks the President-elect how he will deal with Cabinet secretaries who are nonperforming and what precisely 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.

But as we know, things in reported speech become iffier 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.”

Let me repeat this: When the reporting verb is in the past tense, the so-called normal sequence-of-tenses rule applies for the reported utterance itself: it takes one step back from the present into the past. Thus, for completed or consummated actions, the present becomes past, the past usually stays in the past, the present perfect becomes past perfect, and the future becomes future conditional. This much should be clear.

As to Michael’s second question, however, this is all I can say with adequate confidence: It’s too restrictive and misleading to use only past-tense reporting verbs for every statement or action being reported so they can all be construed to have happened in the part. This is because no matter what reporting tense is used, the actual time-frame of the action being reported — past, present, or future — must always be made clear to avoid confusing the listener or reader.

Next: Is there anything wrong with the expression “Thanks God”?) October 17, 2019

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