You said the finals started tomorrow.
(The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p29)

Preterit tense and tomorrow are mixed in the subordinate clause. Does it mean that the finals do not start yet at the speech time? And the started’s reference time is not speech time but the time of ‘you said’?


You have this exactly right.

Expressions like tomorrow, yesterday, today, tonight, last week, next week and so forth are always understood with reference to Speech Time. If you want to use them with reference to another time, past or present, you must "translate" them:

today ........ > that day or the same day
tomorrow ..... > the next day or the following day
last week .... > the week before or the previous week

But the tense of verbs in subordinate clauses representing indirect speech is usually cast with respect to the Reference Time established in the main clause:

He tells me that finals have started already.
He told me that finals had started already.

When the reported speech describes to an event which lies in the future with respect to both Speech Time and Reference Time, this can lead to just such oddities as you observe. But the meaning is usually pretty clear from context.

You said the finals started tomorrow, but Jane just told me they've already started. So I'm going to flunk out and spend my life flipping burgers in McDonalds and it's all your fault, you incorrigible imbecile!

But in formal writing you should be careful to align your tenses and time references to avoid such whimsical incongruities:

July 1, 20--
Dear Prof. Huddleston:
I crave your forgiveness for missing my final exam yesterday (June 30). As you may see from the enclosed printed schedule, I was told by the Dean's office that it was scheduled for tomorrow, July 2. Is there any possibility of a make-up?


You have the idea exactly; tomorrow is considered to be in reference to the present. More formal versions of the same idea are:

You said that the finals were going to start tomorrow.
You said that the finals would start tomorrow.

What "you" actually said was one of these:

The finals start tomorrow.
The finals are going to start tomorrow.
The finals will start tomorrow.

Of these, the first one is informal; since we all know that we are talking about the future, the future tense is implied rather than stated. Taking the present tense verb and placing it in simple past has the same level of informality.

Because of this ambiguity of tense, you will often also see

You said the finals start (are starting, are going to start) tomorrow.

I would call this equally correct. Thinking about it, these have a slightly different emphasis to me:

He told me the finals started tomorrow, but it looks like they're going to be rained out.
He told me the finals start tomorrow, so you'll need to get your tickets today.

The first one suggests that the finals are not actually starting tomorrow on schedule. The second one suggests that they are.

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