I am probably missing something very simple, but when you have a present + past simple sentence like the following:

I think that he looked uncomfortable when he was reading my essay.

How do you put it into a past tense narrative? Do you backshift like you would do with reported speech?

For example, I am more inclined to say: I thought that he'd looked uncomfortable, when he'd been reading my essay.

But it seems like a heavy sentence, no? It does not seem fluent? However, if I try to use simple past it carries a different meaning to me. For example,

I thought that he looked uncomfortable when he was reading my essay.

This option makes me feel that all the actions occurred more or less at the same time (as if I thought about him being uncomfortable while looking at him reading my essay), even though in the initial sentence they did not. How do you handle cases like that?

  • Are you asking about how to backshift your first sentence in reported speech? If so, you'd have to have some reporting verb, like "She said that...", but I don't see one.
    – gotube
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 23:40
  • Do not be "more inclined" to use more complicated verb forms unless you have some specific reason. Your first and simplest version is probably best. Most likely even if you did think that at the time, you still think it now. But in that case you'd normally only explicitly call attention to having thought it earlier if you specifically wanted to imply something like I thought he looked uncomfortable right back then, but I said nothing. Perhaps if I'd called the doctor he wouldn't have died of a heart attack. Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 23:58
  • he'd looked uncomfortable, when he'd been reading my essay is ridiculous overuse of totally unnecessary Perfect forms (it's a "syntactically valid, but irritating" writing style). Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 0:01
  • It's not exactly like reported speech. Imagine I am thinking right now about him reading my essay two hours ago (original sentence), then two more hours in the future, I write it down describing how two hours ago I thought about something that happened four hours ago. I really think the past perfect version is an overkill. So I should avoid that? Then is past simple okay or is there a better way to say something like this? Should I stick to the original sentence even when telling a story set in the past?
    – August99
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 8:07
  • Were you watching him read the essay and looking uncomfortable, or are you guessing that he probably looked uncomfortable at the time? Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 9:10

1 Answer 1


What about: "I thought that he had looked uncomfortable when reading my essay"?

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .