Tag Archives: tense

Indirect or reported questions

A student the other day made a series of mistakes in his writing, things like:

  • My father asked me what sport will I like…
  • I wanted to know will you go out with me…

What is happening here is that the grammar of direct questions, the actual words someone would have said, is being mixed in with a report structure.

The father in the first example would have said “What sport will/do you like?” The second example would have been “Will you go out with me?”

But when you report a question, things change. First, word order changes. Second, question words often disappear. Third, word order changes. Fourth, tense changes to suit the time frame of the report.

So our examples would become:

  • My father asked me what sport I would like…
  • I wanted to know if you would go out with me…

Reported questions are more common in rather formal registers, but they do quite frequently occur in narrative, partly for variety, and partly for focussing the narrative viewpoint in a certain way. 

Many of the rules are just the same as in Indirect or Reported Speech.


Indirect questions (British Council)

Questions in reported speech

Reported questions

Quiz on Indirect Questions


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I have a problem with tense when I use “if”. What am I doing wrong?

This is actually quite complicated, but I will give you the simplified version that is taught to people learning English as a second language. (Information adapted from A Basic English Grammar with Exercises by John Eastwood and Ronald Mackin, Oxford University Press 1988.)

When you use if you are usually starting a conditional clause — also called an adverbial clause of condition or an IF-clause. You do this to show cause and effect, or what MIGHT happen if something else happens. There are three main kinds of IF-clause:

1. Type 1: IF + simple present tense, then + will, can, may/might.
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Posted by on December 26, 2006 in English grammar, English language, questions asked, student help, writing


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My tenses are all over the place. How can I fix this?

See also English Tenses and Subject-Verb Agreement.

This is a real problem for many students, especially those from language backgrounds where tense is not shown the same way it is in English (and even more so in other European languages, which is one reason that studying Latin, Greek, French or German can help your English by making you more aware of what happens in English.)
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Posted by on December 19, 2006 in English grammar, esl for students, questions asked, student help, writing


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What happens to tense in Indirect (Reported) Speech?

I was asked this question by a Latin teacher at Sydney Boys High — yes, they still do Latin! — looking for resources for her class which was over 80% language background other than English, mainly of Chinese background.

I found this rather good summary on a German English-language site.

BBC English was asked a very similar question: Rasanka Saroshini Nissanka from Sri Lanka asks: “Please explain to me all about direct and indirect speech.” Here is the answer!

Here is another neat summary from English Zone

This page brings together some tests and quizzes on Reported Speech.


Of course if it is Latin you are worried about, look at PRAEFATIO de ORATIONE OBLIQUA. Now that is really cool; an Internet Latin Grammar! The author says he wrote it “in order to assist the students of the Latin language at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. When complete, it is my intention that this on-line grammar, although it is not intended to be exhaustive, will allow the student to identify and generate any part of speech in any conjugated or declined form in order to facilitate their translation of Latin text.” Shame about the background swamping the print sometimes though…

This is another summary of the Latin way of doing Indirect Speech: Ohio State University: Department of Greek and Latin.

Visit the Online activities for the Cambridge Latin Course.

[Checked 18 September 2007.]

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Posted by on December 17, 2006 in English grammar, English language, esl for students, questions asked, student help, writing


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What tense should I use when I write about literature?

Here is a short example:

The Fellowship of the Ring is beautifully written, creative and gripping. I found that its detail, in terms of historical background and descriptions of settings and characters, allowed me to understand and empathize with the characters to the greatest degree I have experienced. The characters’ feelings became mine also. Even the sounds of the footsteps of the Elves, Dwarfs, and Hobbits are described vividly in the book. The details are what make the novel more complete than other novels. They fill up the story and make the book seem flawless. The novel has prepared
me for the second and third instalments of the trilogy with success and ease.

That paragraph was written by a Year 10 student at another school. Ben is of Cantonese-speaking background. I have corrected his work in a few places, usually to change tense or to make subject and verb agree. See the next entry on that one.

Ben is writing a type of Response Essay, in this case a book review.

  • Study his sentences carefully. Find the verbs.
  • Notice how he uses present tense (or if he didn’t I have corrected him) whenever he talks about the text. Even “has prepared” is a kind of present tense called present perfect tense. This tense is often used to mean something that began in the past but still affects you now.
  • You write in present tense in essays like this for two reasons. 1) The text exists in the present. Imagine it is in front of you and you are telling someone what you see, what is in that text. 2) General statements of truth are in present tense. All rowers are wonderful! for example.
  • Hey, what about Ben’s second sentence? Isn’t that in past tense? Well spotted. Yes it is, but that is because he has shifted from talking about the text to talking about himself and what he experienced. The same would happen if he started talking about some history behind the book, such as Tolkien’s life, or what happened in World War I that led to Tolkien writing The Lord of the Rings. Notice too that Ben is reporting thoughts there, so when he says I found (past tense) the THAT-clause following needs to be in past tense too.

    So, the rule is talk about the text in present tenses, but if you shift focus to talking about yourself or history, you may need past tenses for that part. Remember to go back to present tenses as soon as you are talking about the text again.