Quote from Die Hard

Joseph Takagi: You want money? What kind of terrorists are you?

Hans Gruber: Who said we were terrorists?

Why Hans used "were" instead of "are"?

  • 2
    Hans Gruber presumably learned English in his DDR high school in the sixties or seventies, where he was carefully taught by literate and knowledgeable faculty that the complement clause in reported speech by default takes the tense of the main clause. May 24, 2017 at 9:40
  • @StoneyB But he is still a terrorist. I taught when something is still true we can use the present simple . Total English Pre-Intermediate, page 123. May 24, 2017 at 11:24
  • You can use present, but you are not obliged to use present. And it's not altogether clear that it is true: as Gruber implies, his gang are criminals, motivated at least as much by greed as politics. May 24, 2017 at 11:53

2 Answers 2


In reported speech, if the reporting verb (said in this case) is in past tense, then usually the sentence also changes to past tense. So are becomes were.

A notable exception is when the information in the sentence is still true, in which case we can use present tense as well:

Direct speech: The sky is blue.

Reported speech: She said (that) the sky is/was blue.


So in this case, both would be viable, but using was is much more common, and Hans wanted to imply that they weren't terrorists anyway.


I believe it has something to do with reported speech. In a narrative sentence, you would say:

John said we were terrorists.

Even though "we" still may be terrorists and the fact is still true, when you just convey the fact that someone said something, past tense is quite logical there.

Now, returning to your example, it is the same reported speech but it is a question, not a narration. That's why Hans said were.

I asked something similar in this question, but about narrative mood, not interrogative. There have been good answers there, you may find them useful.

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