Recently, I was studying about reported speech and while thinking about a few "directly" reported constructions came to mind.

I'm trying to change those sentences to reported speech.

  1. Barbara said, “I didn’t realise it was midnight.”

    (reported speech) Barbara said she hadn't realised it was midnight.

(example from Cambridge dictionary)

  1. Ron said, "It was a great experience traveling with you."

    (reported speech) Ron said it (was/ had been) a great experience traveling with me.

  2. Brock said, "Oh, I didn't know it was you."

    (reported speech) Brock said he (didn't/ hadn't) (know/ known) it (was/ had been) me.

  3. She said, "It was a great opportunity."

    (reported speech) She said it (was/ had been) a great opportunity.

(the rest of the three constructions are from my own thoughts :P )

I feel we should use the simple past tense in the reported speech (no change) rather than using the past perfect form in these cases.

But I've always seen the rules say simple past tense is always changed to past perfect tense.

My question is :

How do we know when to change the simple past because there might be cases when it isn't so obvious?

I've gone through some of the posts like this and this but I'm still confused what to use.

Finally I found this one web article which suggests "was" be changed to "had been".

The example is:

Who was that fantastic man?

(reported speech) She asked me who that fantastic man had been.

This web article is the only one to suggest the change from "was" to "had been".

I'm not sure which version to use or if both are fine.

I'm not sure why almost none of the web resources I've come across so far talk about this. I'd be very glad to hear your suggestions.

  • This question hasn't received any attention at all. Could you please suggest me something? I'd be very grateful. Thanks. Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 7:02
  • 2
    Not an answer, because I'm not going to look for sources; but I would say that English speakers tend not to use the past perfect when the temporal relationships are clear without it. IN several of those cases, it doesn't make any difference to the meaning whether you use the simple past or the past perfect, so both are possible, but many people would use the simple past. But in some cases the temporal relations are unclear with the simple past, so people will use the past perfect.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 11:24
  • @ColinFine Thanks a lot for the suggestion :) Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 12:59

1 Answer 1


Actually, I can definitely understand why this seems complicated, but I think it's actually not as bad as it seems at first. With reported speech, we have two verbs, and they're both combined together to determine the point in time when something actually occurred. Let's take a simple example, with the different possible verb tenses:

John (says/said), "The window (is/was) open."

Here, if both "says" and "is" are in the present tense, then everything is present, and that means the window being open is also in the present, so that's what we report:

John says, "The window is open."

John says that the window is open.

However, one of the verbs can "push things into the past", in either of the two following ways:

John says, "The window was open."

John said, "The window is open."

In both of these cases (in different ways), what is being reported is that the window was open in the past:

John says that the window was open.

John said that the window was open.

Now, if both of the verbs are in the past tense, then they both "push" the event into the past, and we end up with what I like to call the past-past: The event occurred in the past, but even further in the past than some other event (in this case, the saying). The past-past is one of the uses for the past perfect tense:

John said, "The window was open."

John said that the window had been open.

So this is why most sources will tell you to use the past perfect here.

However, that's not really the whole story. The simple past tense actually covers the entire past, so even something that's in the past-past is also technically still in the past, so you could actually just use the simple past for that too. The following is also completely acceptable:

John said, "The window was open."

John said that the window was open.

But you might notice that this is actually exactly the same phrasing we used above for 'John said, "The window is open."'. The truth is that using the simple past in reported speech could mean either of these two things, and it's ambiguous. In many cases it doesn't matter that much, but if it does, it would probably need to be made clear from context which meaning is actually the right one.

So the real answer is in a lot of cases, you can actually either use the past perfect or the simple past. Both are acceptable, but the past perfect is safer, because it's more clear what you're actually meaning to say.

  • Hi. Thanks a lot for the answer. I understood and liked it. Could you please tell me if I can say this in the reported speech – She apologized she hadn't known it had been me. The 3rd example in my Q has a similar construction. The answer suggests past perfect be used before "me" here. But doesn't the simple past sound more natural? Thanks. Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 4:00
  • 1
    In that case, I believe you could use either past perfect or just simple past and they're both pretty much equivalent. The "she hadn't known" already establishes the past-past aspect of things, and it's clear from context that "it (was/had been) me" had to have happened at or before the "had known", so simple past has the same meaning as past perfect in that case (and both of them are fairly idiomatic, I could see a native speaker going either way, though people tend to use simple past more than past perfect in casual speech in general, so past perfect often sounds more formal).
    – Foogod
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 5:59
  • Thanks a lot for the help sir. Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 8:51

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