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I know that when reporting a truth, we don't need to backshift:

(1)

John: The sun rises in the east.

John said the sun rises in the east.

I don't know if we have to backshift in the situations below:

(2)

John: She is beautiful

=> John said she is/was beautiful.

(3)

John: I don't know how to use computer.

=> John said he didn't/ doesn't know how to use the computer.

As I see, talking about someone's beauty and someone's command of using the computer are also truth. I think that we don't need to backshift. Right?

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    As this and other threads explain, backshifting is optional if the statement is assumed to be still true. NB It's 'John said he doesn't know how to use a computer'. Apr 12, 2023 at 11:45
  • Is someone's 'beauty' really a 'truth'? Apr 12, 2023 at 12:39
  • @MichaelHarvey - Well, it's a quality she presumably still has (unless John last saw her a long time ago)! Apr 12, 2023 at 12:46
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    I love it when ELL questions give me (a native speaker) something new to think about! I had never heard of "backshifting" before. Now I'm trying to figure out when I do it. Apr 13, 2023 at 1:07
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    The sun rising in the east is of course something the sun has always done and will continue to do for the foreseeable future. A person's beauty may fade, their knowledge of computer use may grow, these things can change over time, so verb tense is important. The direction of the sunrise remains a constant (barring something utterly catastrophic), so present tense is appropriate. Apr 13, 2023 at 18:23

3 Answers 3

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You might not have to backshift, but it is quite natural to do so, especially if the context is talking about what John said. Imagine the context.

So Henry, this afternoon you'll be meeting the woman that we have arranged for you to marry.

Henry: Is she beautiful?

Well Thomas said she's beautiful, and intelligent, and speaks three languages. In fact, here is a picture of her.

So the focus in on Anne's beauty, which is something that concerns the present and particularly the future. However

Henry danced with Anne all evening. This morning he told me that she was the most beautiful woman.

The focus is all in the past Henry is talking about his opinions held last night. It is very natural to backshift.

In between those cases there are many examples in which backshifting is natural and common. You would choose not to backshift if you particularly wanted to emphasise that something is a definite fact rather than the more common situation of reporting someone's opinion at the time.

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  • "Well Thomas says she's beautiful, and intelligent, and speaks three languages. In fact, here is a picture of her." In this sentence because the word "says", so that we should use the present simple. If I use the word "said" to report, is it still correct to use the present simple tense "Well Thomas said she's beautiful.."
    – LE HANH
    Apr 12, 2023 at 12:09
  • I can change that to said, if you prefer
    – James K
    Apr 12, 2023 at 12:28
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    If you are uncertain, then backshift. It is rarely wrong to do so on anything that is much less than a mathematical or scientific fact.
    – James K
    Apr 12, 2023 at 12:30
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    They are all grammatically correct. They differ slightly. "Said" might refer to a specific act of speaking in the past, "says" might refer to opinions that Thomas generally expresses. "Is beautiful" suggests that this an emprical fact "was beautiful" suggests that this was Thomases opinion when he saw her.
    – James K
    Apr 12, 2023 at 13:26
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    It is illuminating to imagine a situation in which it would be appropriate to not backshift the second example: "Henry danced with Anne all evening. This morning he told me that she is the most beautiful woman." That could be said in a report by the brother to the parents who don't know Anne: That she is beautiful is relevant in the present, it is part of the brother's report. Apr 12, 2023 at 21:48
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We don't have to backshift "when reporting a truth" - but in fact we usually do, as is clearly shown by this usage chart...

enter image description here

Almost every matching occurrence above will continue with ...the east, and it's hard to think of a "truth" that's any more "constantly true" than the sun rising in the east.

Given we usually backshift even that example, it's safe to say When in doubt, backshift. Sometimes it's acceptable not to backshift, but not always, whereas I suspect it's always acceptable if you do backshift the constructions under consideration here.

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It depends on whether that person is referring to an instance or a general truth.

If it's a general and fixed truth, present tense is retained, since the statement applies to the present as well as the past in which it was stated. Therefore, there is no reason to deviate from the default tense, i.e. present tense.

If it's a temporary instance, then the tense is changed to reflect the same tense of "to say", since the statement and the observation contained in that statement happened at the same point in time (because at the time of stating it, present tense was being used to indicate the present time).

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John: The sun rises in the east.

Let's for the moment live in a universe where every day the sun rises from a random location. That would mean that John's statement is referring to today specifically, not necessarily tomorrow.

That makes in an instance, and therefore John said that the sun rose in the east.

But that's not our universe. In our universe, the sun always rises in the east. John's telling us a fixed truth. Therefore, John said that the sun rises in the east.

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John: She is beautiful

Is John stating that this person is, always has been, and always will be beautiful? Then John said that she is beautiful.

But if John was making a comment about how she looks right now, e.g. because she dressed up for the occasion, then John said she was beautiful (although it would be more idiomatic to say that she looked beautiful).

3 - slightly adapted

John: I don't understand computers.

If John is commenting on his knowledge today, but acknowledges that he either will learn in the future or did know more in the past, then John said that he didn't understand computers.

If John is commenting that computers are a topic that he will never understand, then John said that he doesn't understand computers.


That being said, people sometimes bend the rules either because they use something that sounds more natural to them, or because they're trying to avoid an impolite implication.

For example, "John said she was beautiful" would be correct if John was talking about a particular instance in which he states "She is beautiful", but it can also be interpreted as John having literally said "She was beautiful", which would mean that John implied she's no longer beautiful.

Politeness urges you to avoid phrasings that could be interpreted in a hurtful way, so people are inclined to avoid using "John said she was beautiful" in order to avoid that alternate interpretation.

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