Which of the verb tenses of the word 'sing' appropriately completes the sentence:

She said that she heard Esther ______.

In my study of the concept of reported speech I got to understand that a statement of this nature, when reported, carries past tense of the verb. But still after checking with online grammar software I am tempted to believe that the verb tenses 'sing', 'sang' and 'sung' can all appropriately complete the sentence. This of course is the root of my confusion.

  • 1
    Is this a homework question? What do you think the answer is?
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 15:06
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    @EnglishMaster - Firstly, do not trust grammar-checking software. English grammar is very difficult for software to understand correctly, and grammar-checking software makes a lot of mistakes. I see the source of your confusion now - tense changes in reported speech are tricky. To see what verb form would be correct, think of how you would phrase the original sentence: She said, "I hear Esther ___." The verb tense that gets changed is the main one, hear, not the other one.
    – stangdon
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 16:07
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    @EnglishMaster "I heard Esther sang" is wrong as a standalone sentence. To chagne "I hear Esther sing" to past tense, you only change hear to heard. There are cases where sang would appear there as part of a longer phrase, for example "I heard [that] Esther sang at the concert", but here the sentence is "I heard [that] <subordinate clause>", and the clause is "Esther sang at the concert".
    – zstewart
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 17:06
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    @zstewart - "I heard Esther sang" could be correct as a reduced form of "I heard that Esther sang", as you point out, so it's possible that she said it. In that case, I would say that the reported version would be "She said that she had heard that Esther had sung."
    – stangdon
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 17:39
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    @stangdon I don't think you (necessarily) need to go to the past perfect there, "She said she heard Esther sang" could be valid, but would still of course have a different meaning from "She said she heard Esther sing". If you want to be explixit on the sequencing you can use more different past forms: "She said she had heard that Esther had sung"
    – zstewart
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 17:58

3 Answers 3


This is complicated because it depends how you interpret heard. In the examples below, each line shows

what the original speaker said -> how it was reported.

It could be hear meaning listen to

I heard Esther sing -> She said she heard Esther sing
I heard Esther singing -> She said she heard Esther singing

Or it could be hear meaning somebody told me

I hear [that] Esther sings -> She said that she heard [that] Esther sings

I hear [that] Esther sang - She said that she heard [that] Esther sang

There are further possibilities but they would lead to a reported sentence that includes a surplus had:

I heard [that] Esther sings -> She said that she had heard [that] Esther sings

I heard [that] Esther sang -> She said that she had heard [that] Esther sang

The correct answers could therefore be sing, singing, sings and sang

  • 4
    I'll also add that "sung" also results in a grammatically correct sentence if you interpret "Esther" to be the name of a song, as in: "She said that heard 'Esther' [being] sung." (Though of course one would normally put quote marks around it in such a case.)
    – Josh
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 1:40
  • 1. In the first case, both are non finite verbs. sing = bare infinitive, singing = present participle 2. In the second case, both are finite verbs. Commented May 30 at 11:20

The correct choice is sing or singing.

She said that she heard Esther sing.

Or: She said that she heard Esther singing.

So at some point in the past, Esther was singing, and "she" heard Esther's voice. "Sing" is not in the past tense because the singing was happening at the same time as the hearing.

The only case in which it could be sang or sung is if Esther had already sung before she heard about it. However, that would sound very, very awkward, so it would be better to express that meaning like this:

She said that she heard that Esther sang.


Only sing or singing are correct. Sung and sang are not, because the past tense here is on the verb to hear, not to sing.

  • Sing, singing only if they are non finite verbs Commented May 30 at 11:24

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