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When you have a sentence in the direct speech talking about someone’s age such as “a producer discovered me when I was 13” How does it change into the reported speech?

  1. he said a producer had discovered him when he was 13

  2. he said a producer had discovered him when he had been 13

  • the original question was reformatted, making it less clear that the OP is asking which of the two choices is the correct one. Fixing it was too small an edit to be accepted. – dwilli Jun 13 '18 at 20:45
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The first choice is the correct choice. I understand why it's confusing because it's hard for me to come up with a reason for it.

The perfect past (had been) is used to show that an action was completed at the time. When he was discovered he was still 13. He wasn't finished being 13, so using 'had been 13' doesn't make sense.

The phrase 'he had been 13' only makes sense in a sentence like this:

When he was 14 he was famous, but when he was discovered he was 13 and had only been 13 for three months.

The context of this sentence is 'when he was 14'. By that time he was finished being 13, so we can use 'had been 13'

  • 1
    Your example sentence doesn't work. We would say, "When he was 14 he was famous, but when he was discovered he was 13." To fit "had been 13" into a sentence, you would need to introduce another time element, e.g. "I wasn't just a kid; I had been 13 for three months already!" or "He understood what it was like not recognizing your own body; he had been 13 once, too." – Juhasz Oct 19 '18 at 18:56
  • Simplify it: 'When he was discovered he had been 13 for three months'. What doesn't work about that? – dwilli Feb 14 at 0:35
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According to this page about backshifting, you do not backshift verbs in if and when clauses if the verb is simple present or past progressive.

Although was isn't past progressive, it is past, and it does have a progressive sense... the speaker was 13 for a whole year, and the discovery took place during the course of that year.

In your sentence, therefore, you don't backshift the verb in the when-clause, so your first sentence is correct.

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British Council's page provides a useful parallel:

“I work in Italy” Reported speech: He told me that he works in Italy.

The tense isn't changed because the fact is still true. The tense shifting is a technique or a recipe to easily convert sentence from direct to indirect speech, but the final sentence should still follow general rules for tense.

Let's construct a timeline here:

  1. He was 13 years old
  2. He was discovered by a producer
  3. He was still 13 years old
  4. He spoke to a journalist about 2

1 and 3 are general circumstances in the past. They are not in relation to events 2 or 4. However, 2 happened before 4, so we use past perfect for 2.

He said that a producer had discovered him.

Even if we put aside the rules of speech transformation, this sentence follows general rules of tenses.

Now, when we add in the age, what we are adding is a general truth in the past, so it takes simple past tense. His age was 13 both before, during and after the producer discovered him.

He said that a producer had discovered him when he was 13.

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