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Consider the sentence:

External Minister said that the matter has been taken up with Saudi authorities.
Source: The Times of India

Since it's a reported speech form, shouldn't it be 'had been' instead of 'has been'?

In reported speech, if the main verb is in the past tense then the verb in the subordinate clause will also be in corresponding past tense.

John said, "I have finished my work". (Direct speech)
John said that he had finished his work. (Indirect speech)

This is something which every grammar books suggest but why do I often come across the sentences which overlook these tense modification as in the citation given above ?

migrated from english.stackexchange.com Oct 9 '15 at 11:13

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    As ELU is obviously not doing well with explaining this concept, perhaps ELL will do better with its different style. – Andrew Leach Oct 9 '15 at 11:13
  • @Andrew Leach - I'm simply asking if 'has been' usage is grammatically correct ? – iamRR Oct 9 '15 at 11:13
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Yes, has been is grammatically correct, even in indirect speech in the past tense. Indeed, the tense (has been vs. had been) indicates an important distinction! Has been implies that what the speaker said is still relevant in the present. Had been would imply that the matter is closed.

The minister said that the matter has been taken up with Saudi authorities.

…implies that the Saudi authorities are now considering the matter.

The minister said that the matter had been taken up with Saudi authorities.

…suggests that the Saudi authorities have finished considering the matter. In other words, the simple past combined with past perfect suggests the following sequence of events:

1) The Saudi authorities took up the matter.
2) The Saudi authorities made their decision.
3) The minister talked about it.

The sequence is not completely unambiguous, though. You could also say had been while the Saudi authorities are still considering, if you wanted to emphasize that the minister is no longer involved in the matter.

The way to understand the perfect aspect in English without trying to remember large numbers of rules is to understand that the speaker wants to point out a time interval, and the end of this time interval is suggested by the tense of "have". The speaker thinks that the distinction between during this time interval and after this time interval is important. Why the time interval is important depends entirely on context and doesn't follow a rule. Even the exact end of the time interval depends on context.

In your example, a fluent speaker understands (unconsciously) that the important time interval is the period during which the Saudi authorities consider the matter. So, the present perfect has been implies that the time interval is still in progress. The past perfect had been implies that the time interval ended in the past, hence the Saudi authorities' consideration of the matter ended in the past.

Or, in the alternate reading, had been would mean that the time interval of the minister's involvement in the matter ended in the past.

  • Thanks for an amazing explanation. One more doubt- Suppose John tells me today, "I am hungry". Then two days later, I happen to report John's words as "John said that he is hungry". So, is it correct to use 'is' in indirect speech ? – iamRR Oct 9 '15 at 15:42
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    "John said that he is hungry" implies that he is probably still hungry now, two days later. Unless he's in a famine-stricken country, that sounds a bit odd. Compare with "John said that he is looking for a new place to live" which sounds perfectly normal - and we understand that he is still looking now. "John said that he was looking for a new place to live" implies that he has now found somewhere (or we don't know, but assume he probably has). – Pete Verdon Oct 9 '15 at 15:57
  • @iamRR In that case, usually you'd say "John said that he was hungry", since John's hunger occurred two days ago and therefore doesn't affect things now. For example, the you don't mean to imply that we should invite John to lunch right now. But, sometimes when telling a story, you express the past in the present tense, and sometimes you need to abuse tenses a little to make distinctions. … – Ben Kovitz Oct 9 '15 at 15:59
  • @iamRR …For example, suppose that two days ago John said "I was hungry but now I'm thirsty." Today you might say "Two days ago, John said that he was hungry but is thirsty." A listener would understand that "is" refers to when John spoke two days ago, and "was" refers to before John spoke. There really aren't rules for these things. You just call upon the central meanings of the words and grammar, and sometimes stretch those meanings, expecting your listener to reasonably follow along. To learn, master the central meanings first, and then see how people stretch them. "Rules" often mislead. – Ben Kovitz Oct 9 '15 at 16:10
  • @Ben Kovitz : Thanks for your reply! In the above given example if two days later I happen to report John's words to you as, "John said that he is hungry" knowing the fact that he is not still hungry , then will it be grammatically correct ? And moreover, what would you take the meaning out of it ? – iamRR Oct 9 '15 at 16:44
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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. It doesn't matter what the original words were, just that the information is represented faithfully.

In the current example, we could still describe the situation using the present perfect like this:

  • The matter has been taken up with Saudi authorities.

The reason is that this fact still has a strong bearing on the current situation. Because we can still use this description now, it is perfectly correct for the speaker to use the present perfect in their sentence. What they are reporting is not words it is information.

The External Minister said that the matter has been taken up with Saudi authorities. (grammatical)


For the avoidance of doubt it is clearly also possible for us to use the past perfect here. The following is also grammatical:

  • The External Minister said that the matter had been taken up with Saudi authorities.

The reason that we can do this is that the information that was given can also be understood as portraying the situation at the time of speaking. So it was clearly the case that at the time of speaking (which was in the past), the Saudi authorities had already been approached about the issue. So notice that what is embedded in this version of the sentence is still something that we can say now. The situation at the time of speaking was:

  • The matter had been taken up with the Saudi authorities.

What this shows is the tenses in reported speech depend on the faithful communication of the information that was exchanged and not the words used. The tenses we can use in reporting this information just depends on what tenses we can use use to describe the information involved.

  • Thanks for an amazing explanation. One more doubt- Suppose John tells me today, "I am hungry". Then two days later, I happen to report John's words as "John said that he is hungry". So, is it correct to use 'is' in indirect speech ? – iamRR Oct 9 '15 at 15:55
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    @iamRR: it depends. If two days ago John said that he was hungry, but he ate later that day and is no longer hungry, it would not be correct. If John is habitually hungry because no one ever gives him enough food, then "John said that he is hungry" would make sense to me, even if the last time he said it was several days ago. – david Oct 9 '15 at 18:43
  • @Araucaria : Consider a phrase -- A few days back I met my dream girl at the shopping mall. But when I asked her name she said that she 'is' busy. If at the time of reporting I don't know if she's still busy or not and even then I use 'is', would it be grammatically wrong then ? You see, even if at the time of reporting, she is not still busy and I use 'is' I don't think it would be wrong because I have already put 'said' which is in the past tense, so obviously the listener would understand she was busy when she spoke to me. Isn't it ? Thanks – iamRR Oct 11 '15 at 17:04
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Yes, according to the rules of backshifting from direct to indirect speech, when the minister says (present tense) that the matter was (past tense) taken up, then, converted to past tense, the second phrase should be in the past perfect tense:

Minister said that the matter had been taken up...

Same change would be required if (in present) the minister says that the matter has been taken up. Present perfect tense shifts to become past perfect.

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    Not up to your usual high standard :( The sentence is fine because it is still ok for us to say it has been taken up with the Saudi government now. – Araucaria Oct 9 '15 at 12:09
  • @Araucaria : But in reported speech the tenses are back shifted. So shouldn't it be 'had been' instead ? – iamRR Oct 9 '15 at 12:55
  • @iamRR No, see below :) – Araucaria Oct 9 '15 at 13:14
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    In reported speech the tenses may be backshifted if the sense requires it. – StoneyB Oct 9 '15 at 14:08
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Looks like you have not mastered the conversion of direct speech to reported speech.

The conversion of direct speech → reported speech:

simple present → simple past/present perfect → past perfect


So now back to your question,

External Minister said that the matter has been taken up with Saudi authorities.

Based on that sentence, the direct speech is:

External Minister said, "This matter is taking up with Saudi authorities."

Nothing is wrong.

The reported speech will be in past perfect ("had been") if this is the direct speech:

"External Minister said, 'This matter was taking up with Saudi authorities'."


In reported speech, if the main verb is in the past tense then the verb in the subordinate clause will also be in corresponding past tense.

After finish writing my answer, I was about to submit, then I re-read your question and found that the above answer of mine isn't enough to answer yours.

Are you saying "said" is the main verb, then cited that verbs in subordinate cause will also be in corresponding past tense?

John said that he had finished his work.

External Minister said that the matter had been taken up with Saudi authorities.

If yes, then the answer is no! You convert the verbs (in the dialogue) based on this "policy":

simple present → simple past/present perfect → past perfect

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