Present or past tense after “he told me that…”?


My wife's textbook says that these two are the same:

  1. He said to me, "I want you to join the game."
  2. He told me (that) he wanted me to join the game.

I'm not a native English speaker, but in this situation I would say "He told me (that) he wants me to join the game."

Maybe I'm wrong, but to me wanted in the second sentence indicates that while he previously did want, he didn't want it anymore when he spoke to me.

In which situations do you use the past tense (e.g. wanted) when you report on what someone told you? In which situations do you use the present tense (e.g. wants)? I would appreciate some example sentences as well.


Posted 2016-05-14T13:35:23.610

Reputation: 21

I think the linked answer is great. Should I use present tense in reporting speech?. It all depends on what you want to mean.

– None – 2016-05-14T14:16:37.330



It's the English sequence of tenses at play here. If the main part is in the past tense, then the tense in the subordinate clause (the reported speech in your example) has to agree with the main clause -- in other words, the tense "shifts". Roughly speaking, in English the simple past tense in the subordinate clause means that the action in it was simultaneous with the main clause, which is the case in your example. To indicate that the action in the subordinate clause was earlier than in the main clause you'd have to use past perfect. So to indicate "that while he previously did want, he didn't want it anymore" you'll have to say "He told me (that) he had wanted me to join the game".

And I understand your confusion! My own native language doesn't have these rules for sequence of tenses either. It's taken me quite some time to get used to it, and I still can't say that I actually feel it. But that's how it is for native English speakers.


Posted 2016-05-14T13:35:23.610

Reputation: 841

4Yes. But also: if the situation in the subordinate clause still obtains at 'Speech Time' you may cast it in the present tense: "He told me (yesterday) that he wants me to join the game (tonight)." – StoneyB on hiatus – 2016-05-14T14:14:19.993

@StoneyB : I might be wrong on this one, as I'm not a native speaker myself. But I believe that your example is incorrect from the point of view of the formal English grammar, even though in colloquial speech I hear that all the time. (Just thinking out loud...) – zipirovich – 2016-05-14T14:17:47.613

StoneyB's example reflects common usage in my experience as a native English speaker. Consider also this: "He wants me to join the game tonight. He told me so yesterday." – nnnnnn – 2016-05-14T14:26:50.540

1I can assure you that it is and always has been entirely acceptable in even the most formal registers. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2016-05-14T14:27:43.807

@StoneyB : Thanks! I'm always happy to learn something new or understand something better. – zipirovich – 2016-05-14T14:30:37.463

As StoneyB says, this grammar is not new; 400 years ago, Shakespeare used both past and present after told. For example, "the gentleman that danced with her told her she is much wronged by you." and "They told me that your name was Fontibell." – Peter Shor – 2016-05-14T20:57:52.210


Both sentences mean the same. The difference lies in the fact that in sentence 1:

He said to me, "I want you to join the game." What is between inverted

commas represents the exact words He said, whereas in sentence 2: the person

"me" is reporting what "He said to" or told. Reporting something generally takes

place some time later than when it was said. In that case, there are certain

fixed changes related to a)tenses= simple present into simple past(want

=wanted; simple past into past perfect; will into would; etc b)**time and

place** expressions: today = that day etc, etc c)pronouns (in your

sentence, I into he;you into me,) All these changes depend on

who reports, where and when and, on the tenses used originally.


Posted 2016-05-14T13:35:23.610

Reputation: 306