Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Grammar: Reported Speech = Past Tenses?

Locky said,I love my students in Maryknoll FathersSchool.


Is this sentence in reported speech: Locky said he loved his students in Maryknoll Fathers School correct or incorrect?

It is a common belief for Hong Kong students in the primary or secondary schools that whenever they are reporting, or reiterating, someones speech, they will have to use past tenses, and that has, of course, stuck so firmly into the minds of these students that even till now that they have grown up, they still unquestionably accept this rule. Is this the rule? Of course not!

The rules of the reported speech go:

All present tenses go to past tenses, past simple goes to past perfect

do à did       

is doing à was doing          

has done à had done        

has been doing à had been doing

did à did/ had done          


will à would

shall à should

can à could

may à might


(present simple à past simple)

(present continuous à past continuous)

(present perfect à past perfect)

(present perfect continous à past perfect continous)

(unchanged / past simple to past perfect)




Actually, just open up any English newspapers, you do not always see past tenses in reported speech.

Quoting from the Standard on the 27th March 09:

“(The Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority)It blames the errors on inaccurate salary information provided by employers or employees. 

The HK$6,000 grant is aimed at helping the lowly paid as part of budget sweeteners.

Obviously, the authority spokesperson must have said the above or otherwise the newspaper article will not print as such. But if this is already said, why does the article say blames(present simple) and is aimed(present simple passive)?

The answer lies in the fact that this action is still on-going!

That is:

1.     The authority STILL blames the errors (by the time of writing this article).

2.     The HK$6,000 grant is STILL aimed at helping the lowly paid (by the time of writing this article).

So the rule should add one extra information to it, and that is,

If the situations of the verbs has not changed, then no change in tenses, else we change them according to the old rule.

An easier example is,

Today, I tell you that I am an English teacher. Tomorrow, will you tell your friend that,

1.     Locky said he was an English teacher or

2.     Locky said he is an English teacher?

Am I still an English teacher tomorrow? Most likely, I guess I will still have my job tomorrow. So it is only correct to say 1, if I tell you that I am quitting English teacher today, so tomorrow, I am no more an English teacher.

Last year, when I was teaching in a band 1 school, students were still so sure what their teachers taught them was right and they rebutted my corrections. I guess these teachers do know the real answer, but due to the requirements of the examinations (that the students do not need to know the truth of the usage – meaning OFS, out-of-syllabus), or the perception that these kids are too young to know the truth (are they?), the teachers decided not to teach them. Whatever the reasons are, students have the right to know the truth when using reported speech and even if time or age of the students makes teaching the truth implausible, teachers should at least say,

Just remember, there are times of exceptions, so you are only learning 50% of it now.

By letting the students know they are not learning all of it, they will at least accept the new knowledge when they appear.


Coming soon:  Earth Hour


Reply to comments & readers:

1.     I have just realised that some of you wrote comments on my very first entry. Thank you for all of you! But private tuitions I guess I really can't offer right now due to the press for time. I will let you know when I eventually can. Until then, please keep reading my Blog.