"I think he is a good boy". If I convert this to the past tense, which one mentioned below would be the answer ?

  1. I thought he is a good boy.
  2. I thought he was a good boy.

Kindly explain why they are right/wrong (for both the sentences) ?

  • Possible duplicate of Reported speech (position of "was" in sentence) Saying what you thought is the same as when you're referring to what you said, in that it's normal for native speakers to "backshift" to he was even though it might be contextually obvious that he still is a good boy. But especially so if what you previously thought is now obviously wrong. Sep 12, 2017 at 17:01
  • @FumbleFingers OP (and others) may be aware of backshifting in reported speech but not with internal thoughts or feelings. I feel like this is a separate question, or else the duplicate should be expanded.
    – Andrew
    Sep 12, 2017 at 17:05
  • @Andrew: Good point. I've cancelled my downvote, so I can't vote here any more, but after looking at it more carefully (along with tense in a sub-clause, which covers similar ground), I think I'd rather close both of those in favour of your answer here! I don't see why we should always favour the older of "duplicates", and yours already seems like by far the best answer. Maybe a bit more about reported speech, but that's pretty easy (and you have actually mentioned it as the more common context). Sep 12, 2017 at 17:28

1 Answer 1



This is called backshifting and is most often used with indirect reported speech. However it's also something English speakers do when talking about internal thoughts, emotions, or unspoken conversations (think, feel, guess, reason, know, theorize, intend, plan, etc.)

He thinks I am crazy -> He thought I was crazy.

This of course raises the question whether he still thinks I am crazy. The past tense implies that he has since changed his mind -- but the truth is, we don't know. We can sometimes guess from context, or we have to ask the speaker for clarification.

In the same way, when we back-shift we sometimes change the meaning of the sentence. We say what we thought then, but might not think now:

I think it's a good idea to go to the beach today.
I thought it was a good idea to go to the beach today (but now it's raining, so I guess I was wrong).

I think it would be a good idea to go to the beach today
I thought it would have been a good idea to go to the beach today (but then my son got sick and we couldn't go).

But not always. Sometimes we're just talking about an internal thought that happened in the past, and is still true:

I guess that Darth Vader is Luke's father.
I guessed that Darth Vader was Luke's father.

Exception: If you relate your past thought to a current condition, you can use the present tense to indicate it's still true today.

Since I was a child I knew that I can't stand broccoli.
Since I was a child I knew that I couldn't stand broccoli.

It may still sound better to use the past tense, but the present isn't wrong.

  • 1
    In some contexts one might actually prefer the non-backshifted version, because it carries stronger associations of "relevance to current time of utterance". So He said I'm crazy might be more suitable than He said I was crazy if the speaker is still particularly concerned about having been thus characterised (and either wants his audience to reassure him he's not crazy, or is "challenging" them to repeat the claim). Sep 12, 2017 at 17:19
  • 1
    Thank you for this explanation but may I ask a question about your response? You mentioned that the sentence 'I think it would be a good idea to go to the beach today' can be back-shift to 'I thought it would have been a good idea to go to the beach today ' to indicate that looking back, you don't think it is a right idea. But can I still say 'I thought it would be a good idea to go to the beach today' to just indicate what I thought in the past rather than conveying any potential current disagreement?
    – Eric
    Sep 16, 2022 at 17:55

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