Why don't we use past perfect in the sentence below? As you see, it is clear that snake had been killed before John's saying it and there is no time adverb that help us infer that snake was killed before. Shouldn't we use past perfect there? The sentence is quoted from a grammar book.

John said that he killed the snake.


2 Answers 2


John said that he killed the snake.

Backshift is possible here; in fact it is the default option; it provides, strictly speaking, a more faithful report in that it uses the same time orientation as the original utterance (I killed the snake). But it is also possible to retain the original non-backshifted tense, and hence either the past tense or past perfect tense is okay.

  • Thanks for your answer. As I understand , I can use both, even one event occurs before the other. But, using past perfect is better in such sentences.
    – d.alex
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 20:02
  • 2
    @b.east Yes, you have a choice. The backshifted past perfect is "technically" correct where the original utterance is in the past tense, as in your example. But many people would just use the simple past tense since it does not cause any ambiguity and is simpler.
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 20:12

Ah yes, it's been said before -- context.

If, for example, there is a question about who killed the snake. Two people are having a conversation about it.

"I suppose Carla could have killed the snake."

"No, John said that he killed the snake."

"Did he kill the snake after Carla saw it?"

"No, he had killed the snake before she got home from work."

Take note, however, because of strange contractions many native speakers can be unaware of certain grammatical constructions. For example, "I'd a done it if I'd it woulda been necessary." translates to "I would have done it if it would have been necessary."

Sometimes the "have" part is pronounced "of" and can lead to incorrect writing -- I would of seen him do it if ...."

  • Thanks for your answer. As I understand from your answer, I can use both, even native speakers use both ?
    – d.alex
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 20:06
  • Yes, both are correct. There are subtle differences in meaning and intent, but they usually will not cause misunderstanding.
    – karyse
    Commented Dec 17, 2016 at 3:28

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