I'm writing a short story for a C2 Creative Writing course, and I couldn't help but come across this question regarding reported speech.

My main question is this: consider someone says, "I ate the whole package." Is it possible (and does it sound natural) to use the reported speech 'He said he ate the whole package' for this direct speech? I know that the rules of backshifting recommend changing the past simple to the past perfect when the reporting verb is in the past tense ("said"), but for some reason the past simple sounds natural to me in this situation.

For a little more context, please consider that there are three different characters - A, B, and C. At one point in the story, B asks A, "What happened to the cookies?", to which A replies: "I ate the whole package." Later that day, C asks B what A told them, to which B replies, "[A/He] said he ate the whole package."

Is this acceptable (even if only in spoken language!) or should B's sentence be, "[A/He] said he'd eaten the whole package"? My brain is suggesting that if B and C's dialogue takes place not long after A's (as is the case), then the past simple can be kept. But if it were to take place after a considerable amount of time, like a week, a month, or a year, then the past perfect would have to be used. I'm afraid this might be a wrong assumption, though.

I don't have a lot of contact with native english speakers so I'd be very grateful if anyone could provide some insight on this!

1 Answer 1


He said he ate the whole package.

^ This would be perfectly fine in conversational English.

Backshifting is always correct; when it is permitted. However, sometimes backshifting is optional - and sometimes it isn't. So it is "safe" to always backshift, and I would encourage you to do that. Also, do backshift in formal writing or article writing if possible; it is better to be very precise about time signalling in these settings.

The general rules are:

1) If the speaker used a model other than can, will, or may, do not backshift. Example:

"Might I have your phone number?" <- She asked if she might have your phone number.

2) If the the thing the speaker said was true just for a discrete past point in time, you must backshift. If the time reference included the present, future, or was ongoing, backshifting is optional. Examples:

"I want a chocolate now!" <- He said he wanted a chocolate then. He did not say he wants a chocolate now.

"We like to go kayaking!" < They said they liked to go kayaking. I just told you they said they like to go kayaking.

You already seen to understand that

3) Tense backshift to the past and take the perfect aspect if they do not have it already. Your examples above are great for this!

  • Sorry it took me so long to get back to you! Thank you very much for your detailed reply, I think I've got it now. Basically, my original sentence (within its specific context) is an example of a case where backshifting is not mandatory and the past simple ("ate") can be kept. Is that correct?
    – Panquecas
    Dec 20, 2019 at 1:56

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