Time shifting rule

This is where we start from:

So let's go. The good news first:

If the main clause (He says...) is in one of the present tenses (present or present perfect), there won't be any time shift at all.

The sun is shining. becomes He says the sun is shining.

The bad news:

The main clause is not usually in one of the present tenses, because sentences are rarely repeated immediately after they were first said. So have a close look at the following rules:

He said (that)...

This is our main clause and the beginning of our sentence in reported speech. Now let's see how it continues.

We have six tense forms in three time stages (past, present, future) at our disposal.

Present and past tenses

in reported speech are shifted back over one full time stage. However, they cannot be shifted back farther than Past Perfect (which is the last tense form in the past, as you will remember).


Future forms

are not shifted back because that would change the content. So will is changed to would instead.

Because there are two tense forms for each time stage, this results in the rules in the picture.

Note: If the tense of the direct speech is already Past Perfect, no further shifting is possible.

An additional remark about the future forms:

As stated above, the changes in the future can be simplified to the rule of thumb that will is changed to would.

However, for a more complex chapter of grammar, namely the Conditional Complex Sentences, it will be helpful to introduce the names for the resulting forms here.

The sentence He will do it.
changes to
He would do it.

This would + present tense is called conditional I.

The future perfect sentence He will have done it by then.
changes to
He would have done it by then.

This would + present perfect is called conditional II.

As you can see here, Conditional Complex Sentences and Reported Speech with tense forms of the future are closely related to each other.

Jump back to the reported speech main article.