Author Topic: The proper way to construct sentences for reported speech  (Read 17160 times)

Joe Carillo

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The proper way to construct sentences for reported speech
« on: February 12, 2011, 12:43:48 AM »
Constructing sentences for reported speech or indirect speech, which is what most everybody does to tell other people about what someone has said, might seem like a very simple thing to do, but it isn’t. Indeed, except when direct quotes are used or when the reporting verb is in the present tense, it requires some grammar savvy and quickness of mind to put the reported clause—the action we are talking about—in the proper tense and form. We need to apply what’s known as the normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech, and this rule needs thorough mastery before we can put reported clauses in the proper tense and form all the time and with minimum effort.



A few months ago, I had occasion to discuss the normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech when a Forum member expressed perplexity over the particulars of its use in a movie dialogue. The discussion was in a two-part essay I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in August last year, “The normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech.” I am now posting that essay in the Forum for the benefit of those who might likewise need a refresher on the subject. (February 12, 2011)

The normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech 

Part I:

The following very interesting question about reported speech—admittedly a grammar Waterloo for not a few English-language writers and speakers—was e-mailed to me by Mark L. last weekend:

“Just one question on a grammatical concept that I find so difficult to answer:

“In the movie The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock sees this guy walking. She stops her car and asks, ‘Where are you going?’
 
“The boy replies, ‘To the gym.’
 
“And the boy continues walking.
 
“Sandra gets out of the car, catches up with the boy, and says, ‘You said you were going to the gym. Well, the gym is closed. Tell me, Mike, why were you going to the gym?’
 
“Was she right using ‘were’ instead of ‘are’?”
 
Here’s my reply to Mark:

Yes, the Sandra Bullock character in that movie was right in using “were” instead of “are” when she said, “You said you were going to the gym. Well, the gym is closed. Tell me, Mike, why were you going to the gym?”

To understand why the past tense “were” has to be used instead of the present tense “are” in that line of dialogue, we need a reacquaintance with the grammar of reported speech. What’s at work here is the so-called normal sequence-of-tenses rule in English grammar.

Reported speech or indirect speech is, of course, simply the kind of sentence someone makes when he or she reports what someone else has said. For instance, a company’s division manager might have told a news reporter these exact words: “I am resigning to join another company.” In journalism, where the reporting verb is normally in the past tense, that statement takes this form in reported speech: “The division manager said he was resigning to join another company.”

Depending on the speaker’s predisposition or intent, the operative verb in utterances can take any tense. However, 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 takes one step back from the present into the past: the present becomes past, the past usually stays in the past, the present perfect becomes past perfect, and the future becomes future conditional. This is the so-called normal sequence-of-tenses rule in English grammar.

Now let’s review how this rule applies when that division manager’s utterance is reported in the various tenses:



Present tense to past tense. Utterance: “I am resigning to join another company.” Reported speech: “The division manager said he was resigning to join another company.”

Past tense to past tense. Utterance: “I resigned to join another company.” Reported speech: “The division manager said he resigned to join another company.” (The past tense can usually be retained in reported speech when the intended act is carried out close to its announcement; if much earlier, the past perfect applies.)

Present perfect to past perfect tense. Utterance: “I have resigned to join another company.” Reported speech: “The division manager said he had resigned to join another company.”       

Future tense to future conditional tense. Utterance: “I will resign to join another company.” Reported speech: “The division manager said he would resign to join another company.”

We can see that the reported speech for the utterance of the Sandra Bullock character falls under the first category above—from present tense to past tense. So it’s correct to use the past tense “were” instead of “are” in that reported speech: “Sandra gets out of the car, catches up with the boy, and says, ‘You said you were going to the gym. Well, the gym is closed. Tell me, Mike, why were you going to the gym?’” 

Now, having explained the workings of reported speech and how the normal sequence-of-tenses rule applies in that utterance of the Sandra Bullock character, I’ll be discussing in the next essay a slight grammatical wrinkle in that line of dialogue. (August 21, 2010)

Check a related earlier discusssion of this subject in "How to use the normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech" (August 15,2010)

Part II:

In the preceding essay, I explained the workings of reported speech and how the normal sequence-of-tenses rule applies in this reported speech of the Sandra Bullock character in the movie The Blind Side: “Sandra gets out of the car, catches up with the boy, and says, ‘You said you were going to the gym. Well, the gym is closed. Tell me, Mike, why were you going to the gym?’”

In answer to the question of reader Mark L. on whether the Sandra Bullock character was right in using “were” instead of “are” in her directly quoted utterance, I said yes, she was right. I explained that under the normal sequence-of-tenses rule, when the reporting verb for an utterance is in the past tense, the operative verb of that utterance generally takes one tense backward from the present to the past—in this case from “are going” to “were going.”

I qualified my answer, though, by saying that there’s actually a slight grammatical wrinkle in the tense usage of that line of dialogue, and this is what I’ll be discussing now in this week’s column.

Here, again, is that directly quoted utterance of the Sandra Bullock character:

“You said you were going to the gym. Well, the gym is closed. Tell me, Mike, why were you going to the gym?”

The first sentence, “You said you were going to the gym,” is definitely reported speech, with the reporting verb “said” in the past tense. So it’s definitely correct for the operative verb “are” in Mike’s original utterance to take one tense backward to the past tense “were.” From the Sandra Bullock character’s standpoint, Mike made that statement in the past and she is, in effect, reporting his statement. The normal sequence-of-tenses rule should then apply to Mike’s action—it should be rendered one tense backward (from “you are going” to “you were going”) in the reported speech.

But the use of “were” is a little bit problematic in the third sentence of the Sandra Bullock character’s utterance, “Tell me, Mike, why were you going to the gym?” This is because unlike the first sentence, this third sentence doesn’t have a reporting verb. In fact, it’s not really reported speech but an interrogative statement, so it’s not grammatically valid for Mike’s action to take one tense backward in that sentence; another thing, Mike’s statement is reported just a few seconds after it was uttered (the intent of “going to the gym” is therefore still very much in Mike’s mind). Strictly speaking, then, the verb “are going” shouldn’t take one tense backward but stay as is, “Tell me, Mike, why are you going to the gym?”   

The scrupulously correct rendering of that utterance should therefore be as follows: “You said you were going to the gym. Well, the gym is closed. Tell me, Mike, why are you going to the gym?"

Why then did the dialogue use “were” in that third sentence?

Well, in real life, people can’t be expected to be so scrupulously grammatical when they talk, unlike the grammarian in me doing this grammar analysis. Indeed, we really shouldn’t expect people to be so finicky with their English grammar as to shift from reported speech in the first sentence to simple declarative in the third when referring to precisely the same statement. The normal thought process of people in day-to-day situations is actually much more linear and uncomplicated than that, so it’s likely that the scriptwriter of that movie (and probably Sandra Bullock herself while delivering her lines) thought it best to use “were” in both sentences for naturalness and consistency’s sake.

We should keep in mind, though, that when our English is being formally tested and our future might well depend on our score in an exam, we need to be much more exacting with our grammar than that movie dialogue. (August 28, 2010)
-------------------
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, August 21 and 28, 2010 © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: January 11, 2024, 03:09:11 PM by Joe Carillo »

Miss Mae

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Re: The proper way to construct sentences for reported speech
« Reply #1 on: December 11, 2014, 03:11:23 PM »
Now I understand: "When an utterance is in the form of reported speech, the operative verb generally takes one step back: the present becomes past, the past usually stays in the past, the present perfect becomes past perfect, and the future becomes future conditional."

Thank you, Sir!

Rufus Leaking

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Re: The proper way to construct sentences for reported speech
« Reply #2 on: February 17, 2015, 08:36:36 AM »
Mr. Carillo thanks for your excellent explanation. All along I thought, "were" was correct because all my life I heard it used in conversations. Sounded natural and correct. And you are so right in pointing out that when taking an exam or one's job depends on it, one must stick to the grammatically correct way of doing it. Thanks.

Rufus Leaking

aurorariel

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Re: The proper way to construct sentences for reported speech
« Reply #3 on: February 18, 2015, 08:35:52 PM »
“Sandra gets out of the car, catches up with the boy, and says, ‘You said you were going to the gym. Well, the gym is closed. Tell me, Mike, why were you going to the gym?’

Somehow, I felt so certain "were" is the thing to say. She informed him that the gym is closed.  Thus, she reasonably assumed Mike is no longer going to the gym. 

Am I that far off here?   

Joe Carillo

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Re: The proper way to construct sentences for reported speech
« Reply #4 on: February 19, 2015, 01:00:40 AM »
It's really a mind thing. Since Mike is still on his way to the gym and Sandra doesn't really know what's in his mind for going there, it stands to reason from a third party standpoint (ours) that the correct phrasing of Sandra's question should be in the present-tense indicative: "Tell me, Mike, why are you going to the gym?" But as I pointed out in my post, if Sandra is convinced in her mind that Mike is no longer going to the Jim after she told him that it's closed, then she could very use the past-tense subjunctive--and correctly at that--to indicate the unreal possibility that he still wants to go there after all. Ultimately, it's the speaker's private appreciation of the actual situation that will determine the mood of statement, and nobody can really be absolutely sure whether that appreciation is grammatically correct or wrong (unless, of course, we can interrogate both Mike and Sandra to find out precisely what each was thinking when the question was asked).