I've always found backshifting to be one of the most challenging parts of English grammar. My current issue involves using it in questions and negations.

Recently, I got into a conversation about Russia with a guy, who clearly lacked knowledge on the topic, and as a result appeared ignorant. I then asked him:

"Why do you make it sound like Russia is some backward hellhole?"

To which he replied:

"I didn't say Russia is backward"

And here my problem ensues. For some reason I feel like he should have said "I didn't say Russia was backward", though I don't have any idea why. It just sounds more idiomatic to my non-native ear.

Another similar issue struck me during some other conversation. This time, when talking about some comic book characters, the girl I was talking to asked me:

What did you say his name was?

Although I deem it correct, I immediately started to wonder: would "What did you say his name is?" be as viable in this case?

Slight edit: what about the utterance "I had no idea you were/are this tall!"? The same applies, i.e. "were" seems more fitting?

Of course, if you manage to find any other problems with my grammar, I'd be really glad if you could point them out.


Backshifting can be a difficult thing to understand. As an option, it's up to the speaker whether or not to use it. Generally, though, the backshifting occurs because it's implying content that is dropped in the final sentence. Let's take your examples:

  1. "You are tall!" ends up getting back shifted because there is an implication that the notification occurred in the past. Thus the shift occurs because the full thought is: "I had no idea you were this tall when you were described to me."
  2. "What did you say his name was?" operates on the same principle, as the notification occurs in the past. "What did you say his name was when you mentioned him a bit ago?"

So when you uttered your query to the speaker, you were expecting this construction, but since your question wasn't back shifted, neither was the response. There could be many reasons for this, but I would wager that the speaker may have been (at least slightly) flustered by your antagonistic question and formatted the simplest response. The fact that they only replied with one of the adjectives you used -- and the less vitriolic one at that -- speaks to a message and tone meant to be apologetic.

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