My grammar book says that if somebody says to me something and he uses the past tense, I can report his speech using either the past or past perfect. (In the first case I don't change the tense at all.)

For me it yields ambiguity. For example I hear this:

"John said that he was not enjoying his job very much."

My understanding is that John could have said two different things. And I'm not sure whether John is still working there or not.

John: "I am not enjoying my job very much.

John: "I was not enjoying my job very much.

Do native speakers always rely on the context in these situations to avoid ambiguity? Or there is something I'm missing?

1 Answer 1


Strictly speaking you would backshift thus:

John: “I am not enjoying my job very much.” → John said he was not enjoying his job very much.

John: “I was not enjoying my job very much.” → John said he had not been enjoying his job very much.

This is the use you should follow, particularly in formal writing, to avoid ambiguity.

As you say, however, context will usually inform you what is meant; the second example, for instance, probably occurs in a context where John is known to have been talking about his prior experience, not his current state. Consequently, in non-formal writing and in speech the simple-past backshift is often employed where the past perfect is called for. This is not an ‘error’; it’s just an instance of what I call the Tolerance Maxim, that in speech (or in writing which emulates speech) “Whatever should be understood may be omitted”.

  • If John's statement is already in Past Perfect - John: "I had been enjoying my job before it happened." How would I report his speech? "John said he had been enjoying his job before it had happened." ? I cannot backshift Past Perfect any further.
    – mosceo
    Nov 21, 2013 at 13:06
  • @Graduate That's right. There's only one Reference Time in an utterance, there's no recursion. But note that there's also no ambiguity in your sentence: 'it' happening is a terminus ad quem. Nov 21, 2013 at 13:48
  • No ambiguity because of the word before. Without it it could be a mess.
    – mosceo
    Nov 21, 2013 at 13:52
  • @Graduate Not a 'mess', just ambiguous outside an actual discourse--which is true of any utterance. Real sentences, unlike textbook conundrums, occur in discourse. Nov 21, 2013 at 17:11

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