5

Which is correct?

  1. She was told that it was against the law to steal.

Or

  1. She was told that it is against the law to steal.

Background information: The original context is that I was relating an incident via email, where my colleague told a customer that some of our actions were part of the organisation's policy. The policy is still valid, but the statement I used to relate the incident in my email went like this:

  • "Mr Jay was informed that it was our policy to do this."

And I received feedback that it should go like this instead:

  • "Mr Jay was informed that it is our policy to do this."

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  • 2
    Hi joy. Both of these can be correct. Can you give us some more information about why you are asking, or where did these sentences come from? Tell us more about the situation, if you can. – Jim Reynolds Mar 24 '15 at 11:44
  • 1
    Hi jim, the original context is that i was relating an incident via email, where my colleague told a customer that some of our actions were part of the organisation's policy. The policy is still valid, but the statment i used to relate the incident in my email went like this: "Mr Jay was informed that it was our policy to do this." And I received feedback that it should go like this instead: "Mr Jay was informed that it is our policy to do this." Would be happy to hear more views. – joy Mar 24 '15 at 13:32
  • 1
    In your case, both versions can be used. Though, depending on context, one or the other might be preferred by a speaker. In general, both types of versions can usually be used, though there are exceptions. In general, usually the backshift version, e.g. your #1 "was" version, could be considered the default. (cont.) – F.E. Mar 24 '15 at 16:30
  • (cont.) But in your specific situation, some speakers might prefer to use the non-backshift version (your #2 "is" version), which retains the present-tense verb, in order to help foreground the info that is in that present-tense clause, which is the info "it is against the law to steal" or "it is our policy to do this". – F.E. Mar 24 '15 at 16:30
  • F.E., thank you. I was getting confused about whether I was wrong. I now see why it may be better to use 'is'. – joy Mar 24 '15 at 23:56
5

With "reported speech" the important thing is to explain the information, not the words, to your listener. The information need to be true and make sense to your listener now. In the Original Poster's example, if stealing is against the law now then we can use either of the following sentences:

  1. She was told that it was against the law to steal.

  2. She was told that it is against the law to steal.

This is because the speaker was told that generally stealing is not allowed. This situation was true when the speaker was told, and so sentence (1) is correct. If the speaker was told that it is generally against the law to steal, then sentence (2) is correct as well. The information the speaker was giving was not intended to just be true about that particular time.

Which choice we use though, may be important. If we are trying to show that something is still true now, for example, we will probably use sentence (2). If we are trying to describe a story in the past or a situation in the past we will use sentence (1). Here is an example where it might be important to use sentence (2).

Suppose you want to tell somebody that you have a particular policy about something, and that you have checked this with your boss. Because we are interested in what the situation is now we will expect you to say:

  • The Director said that this is our policy.

Now if you say:

  • The Director said that this was our policy.

Then this might sound as if your policy has changed now, but it used to be your policy. This implication will be stronger because we expect the sentence to say is our policy, so we might think there is a special reason for you to change the tense here.

Of course both sentences are true and both sentences are grammatical, but in this situation, it might be better to say it is our policy, just because the listener will not be able to misunderstand the sentence.

Hope this is helpful!

  • Araucaria, yes it is indeed very helpful to me! Thank you so much for explaining both contexts and possibilities in such detail. I really appreciate it! =) – joy Mar 24 '15 at 23:54
-1

"Is", assuming that the law is still valid.

"Was" implies something that's past. Meaning, if the case is such that the law no longer holds, then you will use "was".

  • I agree with you. – David Washington Mar 24 '15 at 11:11
  • What if this is from a story that is set in a place and time where stealing is no longer against the law? – Jim Reynolds Mar 24 '15 at 11:56
  • You are right, I overlooked that possibility. Will edit my answer. – Mamta D Mar 24 '15 at 12:35

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