Why is past tense not used?


In my text book I saw the following conversation:

  • A: I saw Brian a few days ago.
  • B: Oh, did you? What's he doing these days?
  • A: He's at university
  • B: What's he studying?
  • A: Psychology
  • B: Is he enjoying it?
  • A:Yes, he says it's a very good course.

Why is says used instead of said?


Posted 2017-04-11T10:07:12.267

Reputation: 225



You could use say in two ways in this context. As it stands, say means to express an opinion. It's reasonable to assume that Brian still holds the same opinion, so you can use the present tense.

Yes, he says it's a very good course.

You can also use say to simply report somebody's words. As Brian spoke in the past, you would use said. You can repeat what he said in two ways- with or without quotes. If you don't use quotes, it is reported speech and so you should consider backshifting it (move it back a tense).

He said "It's a very good course". - quoted speech
He said that it was a very good course. - reported speech- backshifted

For conversations, as this is, reported speech is much more widely than quoted speech. In this case, a backshift isn't essential, as it's still a good course, though most people would use and expect a backshift. This is what reported speech would look like without a backshift:

He said that it's a very good course. - reported speech- no backshift


Posted 2017-04-11T10:07:12.267

Reputation: 43 538

3So can I say John says he's really like pizza? Because it's expressing an opinion what he still holds, that's right? – Lai32290 – 2017-04-11T13:11:13.130

7@Lai32290 Fixing the typo ("John says he really likes pizza"), yes, that sounds fine to my ears. ("John says he's really like pizza" makes sense if you wanted to mean that John claims that he is similar to pizza!) – Muzer – 2017-04-11T14:06:55.873

For such recent speech, about a course Brian is still enrolled in, you can use "is a very good course" even for reported speech, and even with "said." It's still current information, and the course is still in progress. If you're having this conversation 6 months later, then past is more appropriate. – Karen – 2017-04-11T17:09:05.017

@Karen: I agree about the backshift for is not being essential, and have updated my answer. As I have already stated, says indicates that Brian probably still holds that opinion, and has nothing to do with whether the course is still in progress. Note the present says in this sentence: "He says that his student days were the best years of his life". This is his current opinion, not reported speech- even if he told you several days ago. – JavaLatte – 2017-04-11T17:37:52.490

This is also the basis of the joke "depends what the definition of 'is' is." – fectin – 2017-04-11T17:38:23.280


@fectin: That was no joke, that was a president defending himself against perjury charges. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impeachment_of_Bill_Clinton

– JavaLatte – 2017-04-11T17:46:33.260

And that specific line was a joke: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yp3TQf2xDc8

– fectin – 2017-04-11T17:52:06.883


There is a clear connection with the present. Even though the meeting itself occurred a few days ago, information is still relevant. At the moment of speaking Brain is still at university, he's studying psychology and enjoying it.

As for the last cue, the word says here is more about Brain's attitude towards the course than the mere fact he said something (as @JavaLatte mentioned in their answer). Likewise, at the moment of speaking he still thinks the course is good.

(said would sound formally correct, too, but so long as present tense is used before, says is more natural)

However if the meeting with Brain had happened a long time before the dialog, information might not be relevant anymore and past tense would make more sense. Compare:

"I saw Brain a few years ago."

"Oh, did you? What was he doing?"

"He was at university"

"What was he studying?"




Posted 2017-04-11T10:07:12.267

Reputation: 1 256

1As a native speaker: there's nothing formally wrong with said here, but because the dialogue up to this point was all in the present - Brian is at university, he is studying psychology - it feels a little more natural to keep using the present until there's an active reason to need another tense. – zwol – 2017-04-11T16:22:43.290

@zwol, this answer's dialog about Brain – obviously a different person than Brian – starts and remains in past tense. The question's dialog actually starts out in past (“I saw Brian a few days ago”) but speaker B immediately shifts the discussion to present tense (“What's he doing these days?”), from which present-tense says follows naturally. – James Waldby - jwpat7 – 2017-04-11T18:39:07.350