Whenever I happen to report a sentence that's originally in the present perfect, I switch tenses accordingly, transforming it into the past perfect. My problem though focuses on the backshifting occuring in utterances that utilize the simple past. I know that I do not have to switch tenses when the sequence of events is clear and obvious, as in:

He told me he had an accident on his way to work.

But does the same apply when no additional time frame is provided?

He told me he had an accident.

Or should I use the past perfect there for the sake of brevity? Is there any instance in which one form is more prefered? Or do sentences like:

He said he went on a trip to Japan.


He said he had gone on a trip to Japan.

have exactly the same meaning?

  • 1
    was/had been books.google.com/ngrams/… – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 19 '15 at 19:22
  • 1
    went/had gone: books.google.com/ngrams/… – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 19 '15 at 19:23
  • Okay, but if the past perfect form is this uncommon in such contexts, why is it so often taught that one should backshift the past simple to the past perfect in reported speech? – Bebop B. Mar 20 '15 at 14:20
  • For the same reason that many anthologies of English poetry repeat the stupidity of earlier anthologists and truncate, without so much as a note of warning, John Donne's great poem, The Ecstasy: copycats taking their cues from earlier instructional textbooks. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 20 '15 at 23:23

From this:

The Past Perfect expresses the idea that something occurred before another action in the past. It can also show that something happened before a specific time in the past.


He said he had gone on a trip to Japan.

This sentence leaves a question open - he had gone on a trip to Japan ... before or because .... what? Maybe this was answered in previous sentences, maybe it will be answered in the next sentence.

He said he went on a trip to Japan.

This is not being related to any other event. You are simply saying in the past he went on a trip to Japan.

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He said he went to a trip.

is incorrect English.
It should either be

He said he had gone [...]


He said he has gone [...]

but the simple past forcefully requires a past time adverb.
If there is no past time reference, the simple past will be incorrect.

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