I've seen a lot of exceptions for the reported speech and I would like to debate and thereby clear the things that are on my mind regarding this subject.

I've seen these types of "Rules" of Backshifting (I.g - Move one tense back to the past; eg. - Present Simple -> Past simple)

Apply Backshiftng if the introductory sentence is in the past (Which it is not true, eg. "He said he likes you")

Apply Backshiftng if the information is still true in the future or present.(But sometimes, things that happened in the past are being reported in its original sentence,rather that the Past Perfect Tense. eg. "He said he's finished studying")

Apply Backshiftng optionally. (This is the one I've been sticking for, however, when you tell something days after it happened,it sound strange to not backshift. Eg. "He said he will call me the next day, but he didn't!")

The problem to me is: how am I going to know when backshifting is okay?

  • 2
    Could you include the definition of backshifting in your post for any prospective answerers? It is not a term used commonly in English. Commented Mar 26, 2020 at 0:08

1 Answer 1


I think you may be overthinking this a bit..

When using reported speech (but not a literal quotation), in general, you should describe the speech based on what is true relative to the current point in time (the point in time when it's being reported, not the point in time when it was spoken). So if the person speaking was talking about something that actually happened (or was to happen) in the past, then you should use a past tense for the reported speech. If they were talking about something that is still true now, or is still expected to happen in the future, then you should use present or future tenses.

Basically, if you can take off the "He said" and it still makes sense, then it's probably right.

He said he likes you. (--> He likes you.)

This says that (he said) he liked you when he said it, but it's also something that, as far as you know, is still true now, in the present (he also still likes you).

He said he liked you. (--> He liked you.)

This says that he liked you in the past, but he might not feel that way anymore.

He said he's finished studying. (--> He's finished studying.)

This implies that he's still in the state of having "finished studying" now. You might use this if it was something he just said a moment ago, so it still applies now. It would probably seem strange if he'd said it some time ago, though, because usually states like that don't last for a long time.

He said he'd finished studying. (--> He had finished studying.)

He was in the state of having finished studying then, when he said it. It doesn't necessarily say anything about what state he's in now (when you're reporting it).

He said he will call me the next day, but he didn't! (--> He will call me the next day, but he didn't!)

I think when you remove the "He said" it might be more clear why this sounds strange. You are saying that, according to what he said, he will call you some time in the future (from now), but you're also saying that instead he didn't (in the past), which doesn't make any sense. Assuming the "next day" you're talking about was some point in the past, then the action of calling is something that (should have) happened in the past (relative to now), so it should be past tense in reported speech, the same way it would be in non-reported-speech:

He said he would call me the next day, but he didn't! (--> He would call me the next day, but he didn't!)

This is actually correct, but admittedly we don't usually use "would" like this in a plain statement, so it sounds a little odd without the "He said". Another way to think of this is with something like "was going to" instead of "would", though:

He said he was going to call me the next day, but he didn't! (--> He was going to call me the next day, but he didn't!)

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    Thanks for answering. But, that thing regarding the difference between using a present tense and the past one - I've seen many times (including grammar blogs and videos) that - "He said he liked you" is equal to "He said he likes you". That is why I don't get the use of Backshifting. Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 2:00
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    @JasonO'Neil I would actually say that those sources are probably oversimplifying, and not quite correct. In many cases the two can be equivalent, because things like "liking someone" are usually long-term conditions which don't change quickly, so if he said that he liked you, it's usually reasonable to assume he still does, in which case the two are pretty much the same. However, if you do know that his feelings have changed since he said it, saying "he said he liked you" is OK, but "he said he likes you" could actually be misleading, and the two are not actually the same in that case.
    – Foogod
    Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 21:05

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