Sequence of tenses: past simple + present perfect



I'm having a problem with reporting the following sentence in a simple-past context:

Person X: Since they arrived, he's been very happy.

The person X said that since they had arrived, he (???) very happy.

Thank you very much!


Posted 2013-12-11T17:39:08.487

Reputation: 51

1I would say, "Person X said that since they had arrived, he had been very happy." Note, BTW, that "The person X" wouldn't be used. One might use "person X" to stand for "John", or refer to "the person outside the door." – Scott – 2013-12-11T18:46:46.580

Thanks Scott! Thank you also for the comment on the definite article! – learningalways – 2013-12-11T19:51:37.600

I'm not sure I concur Scott. If it's the reporting that is supposed to be in simple past (i.e., using said) I'd say: *Person X said that since they arrived he's been very happy' on the other hand if Person X's statement is supposed to be in simple past it'd have to be: 'Person X said that after they arrived he was very happy*' – Jim – 2013-12-11T22:08:46.780



Here is our original sentence, in direct speech:

Person X: Since they arrived, he's been very happy.

To report that sentence, which was said in the past, in indirect speech, there are a few ways to change the tenses:

(a) Person X said that since they had arrived, he had been very happy.
(b) Person X said that since they arrived, he was very happy.
(c) Person X said that since they arrived, he has been very happy.

The typical tense changes after past reporting verb (said in our sentence) are discussed in Practical English Usage by Michael Swan under 275.2. Here is the summary:

will → would
simple present → simple past
present progressive → past progressive
present perfect → past perfect
past → past perfect
can → could
may → might
past perfect tenses do not change

So, if we applied these rules to our sentence, "past → past perfect" would change arrived into had arrived, and "present perfect → past perfect" would change he's been into he had been (or he'd been). This is how we get sentence (a).

(a) Person X said that since they had arrived, he had been very happy.

However, as Swan noted in 278.1 indirect speech (5): advanced points: reporting past tenses,

However, past perfect tenses are not always used, especially if the time relationships are clear without a change from past to past perfect.
    This man on TV said that dinosaurs were around for 250 million years.
    (NOT *... that dinosaurs had been around ...)
    I told you John (had) phoned this morning, didn't I?
    We were glad to hear you (had) enjoyed your trip to Denmark.

Because in your sentence it is clear that the arrival was the reason of his being happy, thus the backshift from arrived to had arrived is optional. And since we chose not to backshift the since-clause, we must change the tense in the main clause to match it. This is how we get sentence (b).

(b) Person X said that since they arrived, he was very happy.

Note that, though the sentence is possible, the usage of the tenses is a little different from the original.

Here is another possibility, which reports what person X said more faithfully. If that person X said the sentence recently, and we can safely assume that what X said is still true, then the backshift is entirely optional. This is how we get sentence (c).

(c) Person X said that since they arrived, he has been very happy.

Damkerng T.

Posted 2013-12-11T17:39:08.487

Reputation: 27 649


With reported speech, both the simple past and the present perfect tenses usually both shift to the past perfect, provided that there is no relevance to the present.

That would suggest:

Person X: Since they arrived, he's been very happy.

Person X said that since they'd arrived, he'd been very happy.

With that said, this source, however, notes:

You do not need to change the tense if the reporting verb is in the present, or if the original statement was about something that is still true.

While the statement is not in the present tense, it could potentially still be true/applicable.

So, in other words, if the person whom Person X is speaking about is, in fact, still happy and the situation is unchanged, then you don't need to shift the tense backward.

For example:

Person X: My neighbor was very happy after the new tenants initially moved in; that is, of course until they began stealing his mail.

Per Person X, since the new tenants had moved in, his neighbor had initially been very happy; that was, however, he said, before they'd begun stealing his neighbor's mail.

Side note: If this is something that you've written yourself (as opposed to an example you're directly quoting from a grammar book), I think that the entire sentence (i.e. the direct speech) should be in the present perfect.


Person X: Since the couple has arrived, the gentleman has been very happy.

Person X said that since the couple had arrived, the gentleman had been very happy. (or, if this is still applicable According to Person X, the gentleman has been very happy since the couple has arrived.)


Posted 2013-12-11T17:39:08.487

Reputation: 2 353

-1 for your suggestion about the putting the entire sentence in the present perfect, which I find ungrammatical. – Peter Shor – 2014-01-11T01:49:30.757

I don't think it's entirely incorrect, but "Since the couple arrived, the gentleman has been very happy" sounds better to me. – BobRodes – 2014-03-14T15:15:32.850


It's quite simple actually once you use the rules for reported speech. Since you are using the simple past context, every tense must shift to its respective past form.

So, the simple past tense should become the past perfect tense and the present perfect tense should become the past perfect tense.

Your answer should be:

The person X said that since they had arrived, he had been very happy.

There are no two ways about this one; this is the only way to do it.

Neil D'Silva

Posted 2013-12-11T17:39:08.487

Reputation: 960

Yes and no. Consider this: "The person said that since they had arrived on time, he was very happy. If they hadn't arrived on time, he wouldn't have been very happy at all." Now, I know that I'm using an alternate meaning of the word since, but the meaning does exist. – BobRodes – 2014-03-14T15:11:28.977

Yes, and I was quite aware of that interpretation when I wrote this answer. However, I guessed the questioner wanted a structural answer keeping the words with their meanings intact. – Neil D'Silva – 2014-03-14T15:15:51.977

@NeilD'Silva I agree with you about that—if you change it to "was", you're no longer reporting what they said faithfully. However, I disagree about a different point: most grammar books (such as Quirk et al. 1985) say that backshift is optional if the reported speech is still valid in the present. Quirk et al. go on to talk specifically about this case. (The following comment is from page 1028.) – snailplane – 2014-03-14T20:52:21.490

*'If the indirect speech itself contains a subordinate clause, then the verb of that subordinate clause may be in the present tense because of current validity even though both the main verb of the sentence and the superordinate verb are in the past: (1) "They reminded us that they had frequently denied that the drug has any therapeutic value." (2) "She thought she had told me that breakfast is served between seven and ten."'* – snailplane – 2014-03-14T20:52:51.757

@snailplane I understand the point being made. In practical life (and speech), we need to be open to all options. Hence, the extract from Quirk is extremely relevant in a real-life scenario. However, the asker presumably needs a response for a grammar exercise question (as is evident from the tone of their question) and hence we should decide which response we must write. Quirk's examples are applicable in a narrow scenario; so, shouldn't we abide by the more encompassing rules? – Neil D'Silva – 2014-03-15T04:14:47.377