The teacher said to the students, "Ice floats on water."

Then did:

  1. The teacher told the students that ice floats on water.
  2. The teacher told the students that ice floated on water.

Are both correct? If not, please explain it to me.

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    Hi Thein Lwin. Can you tell us where you found or heard the question and answer? Also, it will help us answer better if you can give us a little more information about your thinking so far. Do you have a guess about the right answer? Why do you want to know the correct answer? Jan 4, 2016 at 13:41
  • @Fum The current question also involves converting direct to indirect/reported speech. Jan 4, 2016 at 15:47
  • @Jim: I'm sure there are lots of earlier questions covering essentially the same ground. If you don't think my first link answers OP's question here, how about Should I be using 'is' or 'was' in reported speech? Jan 4, 2016 at 15:55
  • To me this question is not a duplicate of the question it was voted to be a duplicate of. There's a big difference between the phrasing for the opinion of a movie versus a statement of scientific fact. Saying "the movie was good" makes sense because it's impossible for one to have an opinion about the movie without there being an event where the speaker saw the movie. Was refers to that event. We can know that ice floats on water by comparing densities and there does not have to be an event at all, so floats should be used unless an explicit event is described. Jan 4, 2016 at 17:39

3 Answers 3


Many native speakers, when reporting indirectly what someone has said, will cast the verb in the past without really thinking about it, as second-nature:

She told us ice floated on water.

That is perfectly grammatical, but the past tense is not required there for the statement to be grammatical, as there are plenty of speakers who would not use the past tense there but the present.

She told us that ice floats on water.

What you have are competing nuances: one person might be emphasizing the general statement of truth and use the present (float is what ice does) and another might be emphasizing that this remark is what someone else has said (she said it floated).

Again, these decisions are often made at the subconscious level.

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    Another possible nuance applies in The teacher told the students that sodium will react with water (it will always do this whenever you put sodium in water). Plus ...would react... (if you were to put them in contact). Jan 4, 2016 at 15:15
  • I don't think I've heard "floated" used this way in US English. "Floated" would be used if the definite article comes before "ice" and is about a specific piece of ice or event: The teacher described an experiment where some ice was put in a container filled with water. She told us that the ice floated on (the) water. However, as a general statement of fact, "floats" (present tense) is the most common: Ice floats on water. Coffee tastes bitter. Water flows downhill. Jan 4, 2016 at 17:34
  • @Todd Wilcox: I think you may have missed the gist of the answer.
    – TimR
    Jan 4, 2016 at 18:46

'Ice floating on water' is not something from the past alone. It is applicable today, Ice will float on water tomorrow too, as it did yesterday and as it did millions of years ago too. So we cannot term that as something from the past. So the best answer should be :

The teacher told the students that ice floats on water.

  • This is a good answer. Jan 4, 2016 at 13:40
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    Yes. If you are talking about one specific incident, you use the past tense. Like, "At the party, Sally dropped ice cubes into her glass." We are talking about one particular event that happened in the past. But when you're talking about something that happens all the time, we shift to a continuous present. "Ice floats." "Politicians lie." Etc.
    – Jay
    Jan 4, 2016 at 14:16
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    I think it's misleading in the extreme to claim there's a "best" choice of tense for OP's example. Even The teacher told the students that ice will float on water is perfectly acceptable, and in certain specific contexts a careful speaker/writer might quite justifiably prefer to use future tense rather than past or present.. Jan 4, 2016 at 15:07

Let's simplify it for a moment. Without bringing the teacher into it, would you say "ice floats on water" or "ice floated on water"? As the latter would seem to imply that something fundamental about the laws of physics has changed, you probably wouldn't want to use it. Now when you put the teacher back into it, keeping in mind that the teacher saying something is past tense, but what the teacher was talking about is not past tense to the teacher at the time the teacher said it, you would want to go with the form that's more correct for the present tense.

Removing extra elements to simplify what you're actually thinking about is a useful technique for working out grammatical issues like this. One well-known example is, "she gave it to Tom and [I / me]." (If Tom wasn't present, would she give it to "I" or to "me"?)

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