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Author Topic: Third conditionals don’t backshift in reported speech  (Read 135 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: July 25, 2017, 09:25:39 AM »

A Forum member who calls himself Pipes posted this very interesting grammar question as a private message sometime ago:

“Hi Joe: Ever since I became a member of your Forum, I have become more conscious of my grammar. Thus, I would like to consult with you about this sentence that I myself wrote: ‘Some people said that we could have had claimed the crown had it not been for her answer.’ I am extremely doubtful of the tense of the verb in that reported-speech sentence. Verbs are simply my waterloo. Hope you could help me out with this.”

Here’s my reply to Pipes:

On close scrutiny, I find this reported-speech sentence of yours to be in the wrong tense: “Some people said that we could have had claimed the crown had it not been for her answer.”


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The extra auxiliary verb “had” in “could have had claimed the crown” is superfluous. The correct past conditional form of that verb phrase is “could have claimed the crown,” so that sentence should read as follows: “Some people said that we could have claimed the crown had it not been for her answer.” This is because when “had” follows “could have,” it functions not as an auxiliary verb but as a transitive verb in the sense of “to acquire or obtain,” as in “We could have had breakfast had it not been for my early meeting with my boss.”  

I can see now why you got the tense wrong in your reported-tense sentence. You appear to have applied the normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech, which prescribes that “when an utterance is in the form of reported speech and the reporting verb is in the past tense, the operative verb of that utterance generally backshifts one tense into the past.” This rule, however, applies only when directly quoted statements of simple fact are converted into reported speech, not when third-conditional statements are converted to reported speech like the one in your sentence.  

Instead, the applicable rule here is that specifically for third conditional sentences (no possibility). That sentence of yours falls under this type of sentence, which talks about a condition in the past that didn’t happen, thus making it impossible for a wished-for result to have happened. This type of sentence has the following structure: the “if” clause states the impossible past condition using the past perfect tense “had + past participle of the verb,” is followed by a comma, then followed by the impossible past result in the form “would have + past participle of the verb,” as in this example: “If I had saved enough money, I would have bought that house.”

Alternatively, of course, that sentence can be constructed as follows: “I would have bought that house if I had saved enough money.” Another equivalent form of “if” conditional sentences of this kind is this “had” construction: “I would have bought that house had I saved enough money,” a form that’s similar to the conditional statement in your reported-speech sentence.
 
Now, the rule is that a third conditional statement in a directly quoted utterance doesn’t backshift in tense when converted into reported speech. Let’s assume, for instance, that the example I gave in the preceding paragraph is this directly quoted utterance: “I would have bought that house had I saved enough money.” In reported speech, it would take this form: He said he would have bought that house had he saved enough money. The quoted utterance won’t backshift one tense to the form that your grammatically flawed sentence took: He said he would have had bought that house had he saved enough money.
 
In short, the tense of third-conditional statements in directly quoted statements doesn’t backshift at all in reported speech. Indeed, this type of conditional is impervious to the normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech.

This essay, 738th in the series, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the May 7, 2011 issue of The Manila Times, © 2011 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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« Last Edit: July 25, 2017, 09:59:03 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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