Confusion about "Backshift" of Verbs in Indirect Speech (To Kill a Mockingbird)

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The following are some lines from To Kill a Mockingbird:

I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it (had started?) started long before that. He said it (had begun?) began the summer Dill (had come?) came to us, when Dill first (had given?) gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

The original words are likely to be: 'Jem, who was four years my senior, said, "It started long before that. It began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out." If these were the original words of Jem, then changing them to indirect speech would require a "backshift" in verbs which is not the case in this line. Other examples are:

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really (had begun?) began with Andrew Jackson.

For: I said: "If you want to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson."

Mr Conner said they (had cussed?) cussed so loud he was sure every lady in Maycomb (had heard?) heard them.

For: Mr Conner said: "They cussed so loud I am sure every lady in Maycomb heard them."

Miss Stephanie said old Mr Radley (had said?) said no Radley (had been going? It looks odd) was going to any asylum, when it (had been?) was suggested that a season in Tuscaloosa might be helpful to Boo. Boo wasn't crazy, he was high-strung at times. It was alright to shut him up, Mr Radley (had conceded?) conceded, but instead that Boo not be charged with anything: he was not a criminal.

For: Miss Stephanie said: "Old Mr Radley said no Radley was going to any asylum, when it was suggested that a season in Tuscaloosa might be helpful to Boo. (He said) Boo wasn't crazy, he was high-strung at times. It was alright to shut him up, Mr Radley conceded, but instead that Boo not be charged with anything: he was not a criminal."

So why are there no backshifts of verbs? What am I missing?

Samama Fahim

Posted 2016-10-07T12:25:02.723

Reputation: 301

2What you're missing is the fact that in many/most reported speech contexts, backshifting is *optional*. And since most native speakers tend to avoid unnecessarily complex tense forms, it's quite natural for us not to bother going all the way back to Past Perfect when the temporal relationships are contextually obvious anyway. Given half a chance, we might not even bother backshifting Present to Simple Past. If Alice said "I'm not coming", Bob could quite naturally report this as "Alice said she's not coming" in many situations. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-07T13:51:30.350

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See also our virtually canonical statement of the principle: *FumbleFingers' Perfect Truism*

– StoneyB on hiatus – 2016-10-07T15:17:43.743

'the following', not 'following'. – Alan Carmack – 2016-10-07T18:00:33.193

2The backshifting happens with indirect speech mainly from present to past. John said "I am tired". Then later I report what John told me as "I was talking with John earlier, and he said he was tired." – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2016-10-07T18:46:25.850

Answers

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Your concern seems to be this: "Why doesn't the author backshift the verbs in reports of Jem's simple past statements to the past perfect?"

I think the best answer is simply that we don't always do that in English. In fact, in my speech I rarely do it. Here's an example where I wouldn't: My wife recently started work on a graduate degree. An acquaintance of mine did the same degree at the same university. So I tell my wife:

"My buddy said the workload wasn't too bad."

My buddy's original speech: "The workload wasn't too bad."
Indirect speech: "The workload wasn't too bad."

I know many English language learning websites and books suggest that English speakers will change simple past to past perfect in indirect speech. But I can report that this is not the case in my own speech or in that of most native speakers I know.

In fact, when I do use past perfect in indirect speech, it's not usually because of the original verb tenses the speaker used. Rather, it's for the same reason that I use past perfect in any context--because I want to draw some extra attention to the temporal ordering of two events, both of which are in the past. Here's another example:

"Steve told me he had gotten to work at 6, but she didn't show up until 8."

Steve's original speech: "I got to work at 6, but she didn't show up until 8."
Indirect speech: "He had gotten to work at 6, but she didn't show up until 8."

Michael Swan has some wise advice in his Practical English Usage: "It is important to realize that the tenses in reported speech are not 'special'. They are (almost always) just the normal tenses for the situation we are talking about. Compare:

She was tired so she went home.
She said she was tired and she went home.

In the second sentence, the past tense in was tired is not used because the structure is 'reported speech'. It is used (as in the first sentence) because we are talking about the past."

TL;DR: Learning some rules about indirect speech is helpful (and kudos to you for thinking about it so systematically), but be skeptical of the simple past to past perfect backshifts. In my experience that just doesn't happen often. Hopefully other native speakers can talk about their own usage.

Michael Foland

Posted 2016-10-07T12:25:02.723

Reputation: 86

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It's a good question. There's directly reported speech, marked by quotes, and then there's the speech reported by the quoted speech, which we can call "hearsay" (she said that he said).

Miss Stephanie said: "Old Mr Radley said no Radley was going to any asylum, when it was suggested that a season in Tuscaloosa might be helpful to Boo. (He said) Boo wasn't crazy, he was high-strung at times. It was alright to shut him up, Mr Radley conceded, but instead that Boo not be charged with anything: he was not a criminal."

Within the quotes we have what Miss Stephanie said that Old Mr. Radley said. Miss Stephanie is directly reporting what Old Mr. Radley said at the time, which wasn't backshifted. The author could have used single quotes for this:

Miss Stephanie said: "Old Mr Radley said, 'No Radley was going to any asylum,' when it was suggested that a season in Tuscaloosa might be helpful to Boo..."

but she didn't, probably to imply it's simple hearsay, or even gossip -- just an ordinary conversation in the American South.

In the same way your other examples are really of reported speech that could be in quotes, but the author deliberately chose not to for effect. Note that Harper Lee wrote her entire novel in this relaxed fashion, to give the impression that you are hearing the story with the voice of a young girl.

Andrew

Posted 2016-10-07T12:25:02.723

Reputation: 85 521

Do you mean the original words of Mr Radley were "No Radley was going to asylum"? And not "No Radley is going to asylum"? – Samama Fahim – 2016-10-07T16:04:56.123

@SamamaFahim If Mr. Radley was talking about an event that occurred in the past from his perspective then it's possible he actually said "was". Or he could have said, "No Radley is going to any asylum" referring to (from his perspective) current and future events, and Miss Stephanie automatically backshifted the comment to match her perspective. Again I think the most important thing you can get from how this novel is written, is a sense of vernacular -- how people talked in that time and place. – Andrew – 2016-10-07T16:30:19.473

By "reported speech that could be in quotes," do you mean indirect speech that could be direct? I am concerned about the backshift in indirect speech so that I know when backshift is unnecessary. – Samama Fahim – 2016-10-07T18:34:21.160

1@SamamaFahim it depends on what style of writing you're doing. In formal, expository writing it's better to play by the rules, but the rules are always more relaxed in literary writing. – Andrew – 2016-10-07T20:51:09.440