Female 1: What were you two talking about?

Now, if you later wanted to convey what Female 1 has asked/said to you, how would you do it using reported speech?

she asked me what we had been talking about?


she asked me what we had talked about?

Or should it be something else?

  • 3
    The reported version is She asked me what we'd been talking about. Perfectly natural and reasonable. The past perfect is used here because our talking was anterior to the time of the utterance. – BillJ Aug 12 '16 at 8:48
  • Both examples use past perfect, the first the continuous|progressive. The choice between pp and pp progressive is not affected by report. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 12 '16 at 10:26
  • 2
    @TRomano Yes, but when we convert to reported speech, we usually reproduce the original utterance as closely as possible with just the tense changing when necessary. The OP's example used the progressive aspect and there is no need to change it to non-progressive. – BillJ Aug 12 '16 at 12:27
  • @BillJ Reasonable, without a doubt. I question "natural," though. Outside the groves of academe, we would hear the simple past in normal speech, especially in a dialogue such as presented by the OP. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Aug 12 '16 at 17:22
  • In speech, @P.E.Dant, do we ever really need to use the past perfect? I'm going to use an example here. When I first moved here, I had no friends. I'd had no one to take care of me (before my moving here) all my life, and moving here made no difference. Could you mean the same, not using the past perfect? – lekon chekon Aug 16 '16 at 5:02

Both of your sentences use the perfect perfectly. Even though they are grammatically correct, very seldom in natural speech will you hear either of them!

Instead, we would say one of the following:

She asked me what we talked about.

She asked me what we were talking about.

N.B.: A native speaker will "infer" the perfect where the context supports it.

This is an apparent validation in colloquial usage of FumbleFingers's Perfect Truism, which is:

”Don’t use the perfect unless you need it.”

In writing reported speech, either of your examples is acceptable. If you wish also to convey natural usage, the simple past may be the better choice.

  • Thanks for reminding my best-loved FumbleFingers's commandment. – Victor B. Aug 12 '16 at 23:12

You do not have to backshift past tense verbs, so you could say

She asked me what we were talking about.

or, to backshift,

She asked me what we had been talking about.

You would choose to backshift when you want to emphasize that the reported action was already in the past in the original utterance.

(Note that the first version is also the backshifted version of What are you two talking about? and unless you backshift for the utterance you ask about, you are not emphasizing that the original utterance was already in the past.)

When you backshift your original sentence, you cannot avoid using the past perfect progressive.

As Bill J says, the use of the contracted form we'd been talking about is

Perfectly natural and reasonable. The past perfect is used here because our talking was anterior to the time of the utterance.

This is not that difficult a concept and is routinely explained on ESL websites. See, for example, English Club.

past continuous --> past perfect continuous

Example from English Club:

Wayne said, "Were you watching TV when I called."


Wayne asked if I had been watching TV when he called.

What is not usually reported is that the backshifting of past tenses is optional. Thus, if you do not want or need to emphasize that 'watching TV' was already in the past, you do not have to backshift.


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