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1 He said, "When I saw them they were cooking food".

A. He said that when he had seen them, they had been cooking food. (my answer)

B. He said that when he saw them they were cooking food. (Answer sheet's answer)

I read a rule saying, we change past indefinite and past continuous into past perfect and past perfect continuous respectively. So why answer A is incorrect?

2 She said to me, " I was thinking of helping her but changed my mind later on".

A. She told me that she had been thinking of helping him but changed her mind later on.

This is given in book. Here, "was" changed to "had been", but "changed" was not in "had changed". Why so?

3 "He also wanted to know what kind of cigarettes we smoked", said Joe. A. Joe said that he had also wanted to know what kind of cigarettes we had smoked. (My answer) B. Joe said that he had also wanted to know what kind of cigarettes we smoked.(Answer sheet's answer)

Indirect speech construction of past tense always confuse me. I have seen sometimes it changes tense, but sometimes its not. So I lose marks in my examination. Can you please help with some example in which cases we change the tense or not.

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A backshift normally takes place in reported speech, but there are exceptions. This very useful page lists some of the exceptions where no backshift takes place.

Rule 1: backshift of Simple Present is optional if the situation is still unchanged or if you agree with the original speaker.

Rule 2: Backshift of Simple Past and Past Progressive is optional if they cannot be mistakenly taken for backshift of Present Tense. So backshift is not necessary if there is a time expression indicating past.

Rule 3: Simple Past and Past Progressive do not normally change in sentences with when / if.

For your first sentence, this rule 3 applies.

For your second sentence, rule 2 applies to the second verb, but not the first:

I was thinking about helping her.
... what she said
She said that she was thinking about helping her.
... could be mistaken for backshifted "I am thinking of helping her"
She said that she had been thinking about helping her.
... no mistake possible

I changed my mind later on.
... what she said
She said that she changed her mind later on.
... cannot be mistaken for backshifted "I change my mind later on", because it doesn't make sense in this contenxt
She said that she had changed her mind later on.
... permissible but not necessary

For the third sentence, rule 1 actually could be applied to both verbs. Furthermore, it could apply to what Joe said, because "wanting to know" is actually reported speech. We have three events:

  • The man spoke to Joe
  • Joe spoke to the writer
  • the writer wrote down what happened.

According to rule 1, if a situation is unchanged between two events, a backshift is not required. For "wants/wanted", this depends on whether Joe told the man what kind of cigarettes we smoke: if Joe told him, he no longer wants to know. For "smoke", it depends whether enough time has elapsed for us to maybe switch to a different brand of cigarette.

Looking first at Joe's report to the writer, for the first verb:

What kind of cigarettes do you smoke? - what the man said
He also wanted to know what kind of cigarettes we smoke. - joe told him
He also wants to know what kind of cigarettes we smoke. - joe didn't tell him

For the second verb:

What kind of cigarettes do you smoke? - what the man said
He also wanted to know what kind of cigarettes we smoke. - yesterday
He also wanted to know what kind of cigarettes we smoked. - twenty years ago

The first reporting gave rise to two possiblilities for each verb, so that's four possible combinations. The same criteria apply when the writer reports what Joe said, so altogether there is a total of 16 possible combinations: obviously, there will be some duplicates.

  • I understand the rule #1 and #3 mentioned by you. But I am not able to get rule #2 properly. what does it mean by "..............optional if they cannot be MISTAKENLY TAKEN for back shift of Present Tense." I read the page mentioned by you. Two example there : She said that Canberra is / was the capital of Australia and He said that she left / had left Boston on Monday. In these example backshift is OPTIONAL. So what should be the safe side (exam point of you). Should we backshift or not, as both are correct here? – starun008 Jan 30 '18 at 13:44
  • Generally spleaking, we only use the past perfect if we have to, so if a rule allows us to avoid it, we do so. Unfortunately this is a complex subject and even examiners make mistakes. If it's a written exam, you could say that a particular usage is optional, but if it's a multiple choice, you just have to take solace in the fact that the other candidates are in the same position. Life isn't always fair. – JavaLatte Jan 30 '18 at 21:23
  • I have updated my answer to clarify the position about rule 2, and expand my answer about rule 1 in sentence 3. – JavaLatte Jan 30 '18 at 21:39
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B. He said that when he saw them, they were cooking food.

In your #1 question, the 'signal/time reference word is 'when', so, you shouldn't use past perfect tense(had seen) also past perfect continuous (had been cooking). Instead, if there is 'when' in a sentence, past simple tense is rather used.

#2 and #3 regard to past perfect tense usage. Whenever had is used, this indicates as the first action(verb), BEFORE the second action(verb).

In your example:

''Joe said that he had also wanted to know(1st action, verb phrase) what kind of cigarettes we smoked''(2nd verb).

Clearly, You can easily determine which has happened first(joe wanted to know) and then smoked.

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