Direct speech: Jane said, "I dropped my harmonica when I was swinging with Tarzan."

Reported speech: Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when she was swinging with Tarzan.

This reported speech sounds correct to my ears. I understand the action in the clause in red to have taken place at the same time as the action in the clause in blue. (Or more accurately, that the action in blue happened during the action in red.)

Someone has asked whether the red clause should or could be when she had been swinging with Tarzan: Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when she had been swinging with Tarzan.

This doesn't sound right to my ears. It sounds like the swinging took place before, not at the same time as the drop of the harmonica.

I haven't been able to find any reference work that addresses this. Is my native intuition correct? But I'd like a reference to support the response either way. Does anyone have anything on this?

Thanks.
Original Post
Hi Okaasan

Here are some thoughts.
The time clause might play a role here.

In your reported speech sentence, the when-clause refers to a specific period of time during which the harmonica was dropped. It's a bit like saying this:

- Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica yesterday.

(It's also worth noting that it would be completely normal to simply say "dropped" in the sentence above.)

In the example above, the period of time is "yesterday".

- Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica yesterday, while swinging with Tarzan.

Now the period of time has been narrowed down to "while she was swinging with Tarzan yesterday".

In addition, the use of past perfect simple and past perfect continuous in the same sentence do not achieve the same effect that the simple past and the past continuous do -- that is to say, it is not obvious that the past perfect simple verb interrupted or happened during the past perfect continuous verb. In order to clarify that, you would have to replace the word "when" with a word such as "while".
Last edited by Amy, Co-Moderator
quote:
- Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica yesterday.

(It's also worth noting that it would be completely normal to simply say "dropped" in the sentence above.)


Yes, that's true, but our students are taught that they have to back-shift, so we have to use the past perfect in the "drop" clause.

quote:
In addition, the use of past perfect simple and past perfect continuous in the same sentence do not achieve the same effect that the simple past and the past continuous do -- that is to say, it is not obvious that the past perfect simple verb interrupted or happened during the past perfect continuous verb. In order to clarify that, you would have to replace the word "when" with a word such as "while".


If I'm understanding you, you're saying that I can't use the past perfect continuous with when but I can use it with while:

Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica while she had been swinging with Tarzan.

Is that what you mean?

Of course, Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica while swinging with Tarzan works for ME, but I think if a student here put that on an exam, they'd be marked down for changing the clause to a phrase.

So are we agreed that we can't use the past perfect continuous in the second clause -- or at least as long as it uses when rather than while?
Thanks, Mehrdad. So we are agreed not to use it in the second clause in question. Can you or anyone else find me a reference that says that -- I think I need some "proof" on this one for the questioner.

Another question, related. What about these sentences:

Direct: Jane said, "I dropped my harmonica when Tarzan bumped into me."

(1) Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when Tarzan bumped into her.

(2) Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when Tarzan had bumped into her.

I believe that only sentence (1) is correct. The past perfect is not used again in the second clause. The two actions happened at the same time (and one is the result of the other).

Again, I'm depending on "native intuition" here but would appreciate it if anyone can cite some "Higher Being" -- no one supernatural, mind you, just someone with more expertise who's written a book. Smile
Last edited by Okaasan, Co-Moderator
I checked some references, but I couldn't find any examples like these here. It might be that grammarians have had a hard time thinking about such sentences.


quote:
Direct: Jane said, "I dropped my harmonica when Tarzan bumped into me."

(1) Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when Tarzan bumped into her.

(2) Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when Tarzan had bumped into her.

I believe that only sentence (1) is correct. The past perfect is not used again in the second clause. The two actions happened at the same time (and one is the result of the other).

I don't think (1) is the correct reported sentence. It would mean that she first dropped her harmonica (the past perfect verb), then Tarzan bumped into her (the past simple verb). But in your original sentence, first Tarzan bumps into her, and immediately after it, she drops her harmonica.
I found some interesting points, Okaasan, and I thought you would like to read them too:

Whatever the tense of your reporting verb, you put the verb in the reported clause into a tense that is appropriate at the time that you are speaking.

(Collins Cobuild English Grammar)


I think you could use this to show your students (or whoever asked you about this) that we don't have a single rule of back-shifting for reported speech. There are many variations in reality.



The most common problems with tenses arise when you have to shift back and forth from the present to the past and when you are converting direct speech to indirect speech.

(The American Heritage Book of English Usage)


This extract also confirms that it is not a neat and clean job to deal with the tenses in reported speech. And finally, I thought the following notes might be of interest to you:



If the direct speech is in the past tense, the indirect speech must also be in the past or the past perfect:

Direct Speech: “The play opened last week,” he said.
Indirect Speech: He said that the play opened (or had opened) the week before.

The second example raises the issue of whether the past perfect tense is falling out of use in such situations. The Usage Panel prefers the past perfect, but the simple past is often acceptable. Seventy-seven percent prefer had talked to talked in the sentence I asked if he had talked to his doctor. This leaves, of course, 23 percent for whom talked is unobjectionable. The panel is even more tolerant of the simple past in this example, which does not involve the reporting of discourse. In a sentence such as Before I was introduced to her, I heard/had heard the rumor about her, 59 percent would require had heard, while 41 percent would allow heard. Thus it seems likely that many readers will not notice the omission of had—that is, the use of the simple past in preference to the past perfect—in these situations.

But if the direct speech is in the perfect or past perfect tense, then the indirect speech must be in the past perfect:

Direct Speech: “I have been working as a plumber for six years,” he said.
Indirect Speech: He said that he had been working as a plumber for six years.

(The American Heritage Book of English Usage)
quote:
(1) Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when Tarzan bumped into her.

I don't think (1) is the correct reported sentence. It would mean that she first dropped her harmonica (the past perfect verb), then Tarzan bumped into her (the past simple verb).


Hmmmmm. You know, I think you're right there. I didn't see that that interpretation was possible.

This whole problem of tenses would be so much easier if we didn't have to back-shift. But students here are taught to do so, so then we get into problems.

Rachel and Amy, do either of you have any references that might help poor Jane get her speech indirectly reported properly?
I'm going to try some other online sources/forums too. But tell me, how do these sound just by your "native intuition"? And how about you other natives or near-natives out there in GE-land?

I'm beginning to conclude that English just doesn't have a mechanism to adequately handle these clauses. Is it any better when they are reduced to phrases or turned into passives, as below???

Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when bumped by Tarzan.

Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when she was bumped by Tarzan.

Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when swinging with Tarzan.

Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica while swinging with Tarzan.
I wrote to Prof. David Crystal (thanks, Izzy, for "introducing" me to him), and he graciously answered. Here is his reply -- my questions and remarks are in black and David Crystal's are in red:

Direct speech: Jane said, "I dropped my harmonica when I was swinging with Tarzan."

Let's say this event took place on the 20 March.

(1) Reported speech: Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when she was swinging with Tarzan.

This is the norm. The implication is that this happened on 20 March.

(2) Reported speech: Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when she had been swinging with Tarzan.

The event might have happened on the 20 March, but it could have happened earlier, on previous swinging occasions. The verb form pushes the event into the more distant past. This hardly seems justified by the content of the sentence, though, which is why it feels somewhat anomalous.

I think that (1) is correct.

Agreed.

(3) Reported speech: Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica while she was swinging with Tarzan.

'While' emphasises contemporaneous occurrence. It has to be 20 March.

(4) Reported speech: Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica while she had been swinging with Tarzan.

This is anomalous, because 'while' suggests contemporaneousness whereas 'had' suggests prior event.

Direct speech: Jane said, "I dropped my harmonica when Tarzan bumped me."

(5) Reported speech: Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when Tarzan bumped her.

(6) Reported speech: Jane said that she had dropped her harmonica when Tarzan had bumped her.

(5) could be interpreted that the dropping happened prior to the bumping, rather than as a result of it.

Yes, the 'had' allows that interpretation - 'by the time that Tarzan bumped her'. 'When' is often ambiguous in this way.

(6) doesn't sound right to me;

This is because the two 'when' interpretations just mentioned are both close to the moment of bumping, either simultaneous with it or just before it. 'Had' suggests some time before it, which doesn't work well with the meanings of 'when'.

I think it means that the bumping happened some time prior to the dropping, rather than causing it.

Perhaps English doesn't have an adequate mechanism for this?

Several time conjunctions are ambiguous. 'As' is another one, which often blurs time and result.

So, in conclusion, my hunch was right. The second clause of the reported speech does not go in the past perfect if the first clause is past perfect. And the first sentence (when she was swinging) would be better with the conjunction while.
Hi Okaasan,

I think the word 'when' is actually causing all of the problems here.

If we use 'when' in a simple past tense sentence, the verb that follows 'when' is always the one that happened first:

Mary: "We left when John arrived."

In the direct speech above, 'arrived' happened first and 'left' happened second -- and we do not need the past perfect to tell us that. So, this says to me that 1) there are times when we don't need the past perfect in order to know which act happened first, and 2) time clauses frequently get special treatment. :-)

How would you change Mary's sentence (above) to reported speech, Okaasan?

If we blindly follow very prescriptive rules (which often are also overly general) about reported speech, both verbs would have to shift to the past perfect in the reported speech version of Mary's sentence. But doing so seems like complete and utter overkill to me.

It seems to me I've read something somewhere that "officially" stated that we don't necessarily have to backshift in time clauses...

If I find something, I'll post again.
Last edited by Amy, Co-Moderator
OK, here is a site that explicitly addresses sentences containing the simple past and the past continuous when joined by the word 'when':
Exceptions in reported speech
(Scroll about half-way down the page to "Exceptions".)
I have no idea, however, what their source was.

........................

And here is another site that states that we do not backshift in time clauses:

no tense change in time clauses
Last edited by Amy, Co-Moderator
Thanks for those, Amy. I'll check them out when I have more time (just looking at stuff quick before going to work now). I agree that natives don't always back-shift, but as you said, the textbooks don't always allow for what I call "real" English.

From the perspective of the learner, I guess it is easier to learn one rule -- even if it's over-generalized -- than to learn "If X, do it this way. If Y, do it that way. If Z, do it another way."

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