Time reference in reported speech

Raf Salkie, Susan Reed

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


English tenses in indirect reported speech appear to behave in unusual ways. In John said that he was happy, the most likely interpretation is that John's being happy was simultaneous with the time of John's speaking. This has led many analysts to invoke a 'Sequence of Tenses' rule, while others have proposed that English has two formally identical but semantically distinct past tenses, treating was in the preferred interpretation as a 'relative past'. Under either treatment, a simple semantics for English tenses cannot be maintained.

This paper argues that time reference in reported speech can only be analysed within a coherent theory of speech reporting. We propose a new way of distinguishing direct and indirect reported speech, based on the notion of Pragmatic Source. Within this framework we then argue that tense in indirect reported speech can be handled by pragmatic principles, without any enrichment of the semantics of tense. Previous analyses of tense in reported speech by Comrie and Declerck are examined and rejected. Unlike other accounts of reported speech, our approach does not presuppose an 'original utterance'.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)319-348
Number of pages29
JournalEnglish Language & Linguistics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1997


  • tense
  • reported speech
  • quotation

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