By Goke Ilesanmi
Last week, we said reported speech is the opposite of direct speech. We stressed that reported speech does not necessarily mean past-tense version of direct speech, as it is possible to have present- as well as past-tense reported speech.
We expatiated that what determines the tense of the reported speech is the tense of the reporting or introducing verb. We also examined different forms of structural transformation that take place in the course of changing direct speech into reported speech. We examined some flexibility that manifests, especially regarding adverbs of place and time. Let us continue from where we stopped last week.
Statements and questions combined
Here we are going to consider a situation in which we have a statement followed by a question and vice versa.
(a)A statement followed by a question:
“I am satisfied. Do you need more?” (direct speech) becomes “He said (that) he was satisfied and asked if/whether his listener/friend needed more” in the reported case.
(b) A question followed by a statement:
“Do you need more? I am satisfied” (direct speech) becomes “He asked if/whether his listener/friend needed more and added that he himself was satisfied”.
Breaking the tense-sequence rule
(a)Universal permanent truth:
The rule of sequence of tenses stipulating tense agreement between the main clause (represented by “He says/said”, etc.) and the subordinate clause is acceptably broken in (academic) English when we are talking about universal and permanent truth. So, He said, “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west” (direct speech) becomes “He said (that) the sun rises in the east and sets in the west” in the reported form.
Naturally, the verbs should have been in the past form. But because the idea expressed here is universal and permanent, the present tense is preserved.
(b) Non-universal permanent truth:
As said earlier, expressions of universal truth are the only grammatical situation in which the rule of sequence of tenses is permissibly broken in academic English.
However, extreme observance of this rule may lead to a dilemma in some situations because one may be psychologically torn between trying to maintain a permanent idea, and abiding by the rule of grammar. For example, let us assume that a friend of yours called Femi has come to introduce his sister to you by saying “Meet Bola my younger sister”, if you want to tell another friend about this, would you say “Femi said (that) Bola was his younger sister”? If you prefer to utter it this way, you are just trying to observe the rule of sequence of tenses, and this is purely academic English. But the implication of your utterance is that you are saying the kinship tie between Femi and Bola his younger sister no longer exists.
However, if you say “Femi said (that) Bola is his younger sister”, it amounts to breaking the rule of tense-sequence, but the information portrays their kinship tie as being intact. This situation represents that of a non-universal permanent truth. That is, it is not globally known that Femi and Bola are brother and sister, though the truth is permanent. However, it is globally known that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So this is the difference between a universal permanent truth and a non-universal permanent truth.
Note: some flexibility is, however, allowed in permanent truths that are not universal, like the kinship tie between Femi and Bola. That is, the rule of sequence of tenses can be broken if one is more interested in the present fact than in the past statement or observance of academic grammar. This is especially so in spoken English, or written discourse not based on English-language examination.
Reported speech and news-reporting
In news-reporting, for example, some journalism scholars say that present tense should take precedence over past, if information will still hold even after an incident has been reported. This is called “historical present”. The point made to buttress this assertion is that the purpose of news stories is to achieve immediacy and this is why newspaper headlines are written in present tense.
One of such scholars, a professor of journalism and author of Grammar for Journalists, a book that has two professors of English, S. Leonard Rubinstein and Robert G. Weaver as contributors, says in the book: “A major problem between present and past tenses results when the unthinking journalist puts too much stress on past tense at the expense of logic. Clearly, when you are quoting someone who spoke at a meeting, the speech or attribution tag (usually said) is in the past tense. After all, the speaker said it – past tense, once and done. But what if the speaker was talking about an on-going project?”
He continues: “‘I don’t like the way the bypass is coming,’ Williams said. ‘It looks as if it will ruin our environment.’ Would you change the direct quotation to the past tense? Of course, not. You know Williams is speaking of his position on the bypass; his position is unlikely to change unless the bypass changes. The problem arises when the journalist paraphrases a speaker.… By changing the tense, you have changed the meaning…. Using past tense where logic calls for present tense could confuse the reader.”
In changing from direct to reported speech, the rule of tense-sequence needs to be observed. However, this rule is permissibly broken in universal truths even when it is academic English. Even in habitual actions or non-universal permanent truths, flexibility is allowed if one is more interested in the present fact than in the past statement, especially when it is not a written discourse concerned with English Language examination.
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GOKE ILESANMI (FIIM, FIMC, CMC), CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Professional Public Speaker, Career Mgt Coach and Certified Mgt Consultant. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant. Tel: 08056030424; 08055068773; 08187499425