Facts in reported speech – to backshift or not



Are these two sentences grammatically correct?

  1. Mona told me that London was the biggest city in England.
  2. He wanted to know where Manchester was.

I found these two sentences by chance in an exercise book published by Egypt's Ministry of Education.

Both sentences talk about a fact, and Is it unreasonable to change the verb tense in reported speech to past simple when what the sentences talks about is still true? (As my teacher and the books say.)

Or is it right when we talk about facts to change the tense or is the tense change optional and both are correct?

omar khattab

Posted 2018-03-26T07:51:44.893

Reputation: 21

1When the original utterance contains a fact that is still true, you can backshift the present tense, or keep it. – BillJ – 2018-03-26T09:33:04.460



Both present and past tense are possible. I tend to prefer present.

"Backshifting" is the tendency when reporting speech to change the tense to past tense. Sometimes this makes sense:

Mona said "I'm working in a cafe".

Mona said that she was working in a cafe.

But it is not required, and not backshifting can emphasise that the person reporting believes something is still true.

Mona said that she's working in a cafe. It must be a new job.

For "facts" there is no need to make this emphasis, as the fact isn't going to change, so

Mona said that London is the biggest city.

Mona said that London was the biggest city.

would mean the same. Perhaps the second could be used if you want to doubt Mona's report.

Mona said that LA was the biggest city in the USA, but I'm sure that New York is bigger.

But even in this case using "is" would also be correct.

James K

Posted 2018-03-26T07:51:44.893

Reputation: 80 781

Thanks but what about 'he wanted to know where Manchester was' ? – omar khattab – 2018-03-26T16:31:51.717

The same, I prefer "is", but "was" is not incorrect. – James K – 2018-03-26T19:06:39.187


Both sentences are correct. The change in the verb tense is optional in reported speech when the reported fact is still true.

Benjamin Godfrey

Posted 2018-03-26T07:51:44.893

Reputation: 396

I would add a liittle addition: the modern usage tends not to backshift , even if it were necessary according to the established requirements of the backshifting. But, if it is the well known geographical truths, it is not necessary to backshift the verb in the subordinate clause in the established requirements as well. – kngram – 2020-06-16T19:23:03.433