Indirect speech: Rules for the change of tenses

When the reporting verb is in the past tense, all present tenses within the inverted commas are changed into the corresponding past tenses.

Simple present will change into simple past.

  • She said, „I am fine.“
  • She said that she was fine.

Present continuous will change into past continuous tense.

  • She said, „I am going.“
  • She said that she was going.

Present perfect tense will change into past perfect tense.

  • She said, „I have finished.“
  • She said that she had finished.

Present perfect progressive will change into past perfect progressive.

  • She said, „I have been working.“
  • She said that she had been working.

Simple past will change into past perfect.

  • He said, „I wrote a letter.“
  • He said that he had written a letter.

Past perfect will not change.

  • I said, „I had made a call.“
  • I said that I had made a call.

Points to be noted

1. The tenses may not change if the statement is still relevant or if it is a universal truth. We can often choose whether to keep the original tenses or change them.

  • He said, „I know your address.“
  • He said that he knows/knew her address.
  • She said, „English is easy to learn.“
  • She said that English is/was easy to learn.
  • He said, „I have missed the train.“
  • He said that he has/had missed the train.
  • The teacher said, „The Earth goes round the Sun.“
  • The teacher said that the Earth goes/went round the Sun.

2. After present, future and present perfect reporting verbs, tenses are usually the same as in the original.

  • He says, „I don’t want to play any more.”
  • He says that he doesn’t want to play any more.
  • I will tell her, „Your idea is great.”
  • I will tell her your idea is great.
  • The government has announced, „Taxes will be raised.”
  • The government has announced that taxes will be raised.
Modal verbs in indirect speech

The modals will, shall, can and may change to their corresponding past tense forms in indirect speech.

  • He said, „I can swim.“
  • He said that he could swim.
  • I said, „I will probably be late.“
  • I said that I would probably be late.

The modals would, should, could, might, ought and must are normally unchanged after past reporting verbs in indirect speech. This is also true of modal need and had better.

  • He said, „It would be nice if I could see you again.”
  • He said that it would be nice if he could see me again.
  • She said, „It must be pretty late. I really must go.”
  • She said that it must be pretty late and she really must go.

First person shall and conditional should may be reported as would in indirect speech (because of the change of person).

  • They said, „We shall/should be delighted to come.”
  • They said that they would be delighted to come.

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