Backshift (Sequence-of-Tense Rule in Grammar)

The glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms

backshifting in grammar
 In sentence (b), the verb (<i>was coming</i>) has been <b>backshifted</b>.

In English grammar, backshift is the changing of a present tense to a past tense following a past form of a reporting verb. Also known as the sequence-of-tense rule.

Backshift (or backshifting) may also occur when a verb in a subordinate clause is affected by the past tense in the main clause. Chalker and Weiner offer an example of backshift where logically the present tense would be used: "I didn't apply for the job, although I was female and had the right degree" (Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 1994).

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Notice the contrast between has and had in this pair: i Kim has blue eyes. [original utterance: present tense]
    ii I told Stacy that Kim had blue eyes. [indirect report: preterite] If I say [i] to Stacy, I can use [ii] as an indirect report to tell you what I said to Stacy. . . . My utterance to Stacy contained the present tense form has, but my report of it contains preterite had. Nonetheless, my report is entirely accurate. This kind of change in tense is referred to as backshift.
    "The most obvious cases of backshift are with verbs of reporting that are in the preterite, like told or said. . . .
    "[B]ackshift also happens quite generally in constructions where one clause is embedded within a larger one containing a preterite verb: i Stacy didn't know that Kim had blue eyes.
    ii I wondered at the time whether they were genuine.
    iii I wish I knew if these paintings were genuine. All the [highlighted] verbs have backshifted tense."
    (Rodney D. Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction To English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2005)
  • "Backshifting occurs not only with indirect speech, but also with reported feelings and thoughts expressed frequently with verbs such as know, think, realize, and forget. (19a) She knows that we are meeting tomorrow.
    (19b) She knew that we were meeting tomorrow. In (19a) the reporting verb (knows) is in the present tense, as is the verb in the reported clause (are). In (19b), when the reporting verb is past tense (knew), the verb in the reported clause is backshifted to past tense (were). Note that the time of the situation ('we are meeting') has not changed; it remains in the future."
    (Dee Ann Holisky, Notes on Grammar. Orchises Press, 1997)
  • Exceptions to Backshifting
    - "In certain situations, the sequence of tense rules are relaxed and backshifting is not required. Essentially, backshifting is not required if a statement about the present or future still holds. . . .
    "A shift is not necessary if: - the original statement is a general truth.
    Torrecelli concluded that the atmosphere is/was a sea of air pressing down on the earth.
    - the speaker is reporting something that is still true.
    Fred said he drives/drove a 1956 Belchfire Special.
    - the speaker is reporting something still possible for the future:
    The forecast said we will/would be having lots of rain.
    - the speaker repeats something he or she just said.
    John: I like opera.
    Bill: What did you say?
    John: I said I like opera.
    " (Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English: A Course Book and Reference Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
    - "Backshift . . . is optional when what was said applies equally at the time of reporting: Benjamin said that he is/was coming over to watch television tonight. Such traditional shifts are not, however, used in certain types of relaxed, colloquial reporting and storytelling: Then he says he's coming and she says that he could come or not for all she cared."
    (Tom McArthur, Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 2005)

Also Known As: backshifting, sequence-of-tense (SOT) rule, succession of tenses

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Nordquist, Richard. "Backshift (Sequence-of-Tense Rule in Grammar)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Backshift (Sequence-of-Tense Rule in Grammar). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Backshift (Sequence-of-Tense Rule in Grammar)." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).