Lesson #231: How two different tenses can be used together correctly in reported speech

Earlier this week we delved into (dived into) the ‘nuts and bolts‘ (an expression that means ‘everything relating to’) of direct and indirect speech.

But of course, it takes time and space to cover such a large topic, and I noticed that some students had questions about the difference in tenses used in retelling indirect speech. 👈

For example, you will often find sentences like this where two tenses are used:

✒️ Lisa told [past simple] me that we have [present simple] to leave the house early if we want [present simple] to avoid traffic.

The good news is that the answer to this grammar question is straightforward! 🙂

Since today’s topic builds on last Monday’s Lesson #230, I am providing several examples from George Eliot again – this time from her other monumental (large, great, impressive) novel, The Mill on the Floss (1860).  

📙 A short background to the story:

It is a psychologically realistic tale of two siblings (brother and sister) whose close friendship is tested as they grow up. Maggie Tulliver, the main character, is an intelligent tom-boy (a girl who likes to play outdoors and be adventurous) who tries her hardest to be good and acceptable, especially in the eyes of her brother Tom, whom she adores. As they grew older and new friends enter into their lives, they learn more about the kind of people they really want to become and who it is that they are willing to change for.


Imagine for a moment that you are meeting a good friend you have not seen in a while.

As you chat together, you mention another mutual friend whom you have not seen in a while, wondering what they are ‘up to’ (English colloquial for ‘doing’) nowadays. You remember that this absent friend – whom we will call Julia – had told you about some of her plans.

Two years ago (let’s say it was in 2019), Julia had described her hopes for the future. Her words at that time were: ‘I am going to travel for a year. And then, when I return, I will try to set up my own business and become self-employed.’

So when Julia was speaking about her plans, all of those intentions were still in her future (projected into 2020, 2021, etc).

However, now that you are speaking with your good friend, you are remembering what Julia said to you two years ago in 2019, that is, in the past. In fact, she told you about her plans before she had actually done those things, so that we describe the action where she was speaking about her plans as being in the past perfect.

For this reason, you tell your friend the following:

✒️ ‘When I saw Julia two years ago, she had told me that she was going to travel for a year and that she would then try to set up her own business and become self-employed.’

Or using the verb ‘said’:

✒️ ‘When I saw Julia about two years ago, she had said that she was going to travel for a year and that she would then try to set up her own business and become self-employed.’

Now let us look at some instances of different verb tenses in reported speech, from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.

I am going to highlight these different verb tenses.

✏️ However, instead of my explaining each sentence for you, I suggest that you ask yourself these questions of the verbs:

  • Which verb belongs to the reported speech from an earlier period of time (e.g. Julia’s words as said two years ago)?
  • And which verb belongs to the person who is retelling the story (e.g., yourself, as the person retelling Julia’s words in the present moment)?

This exercise helps to make your learning experience more active!

  • You can even ask yourself of each quotation below: how would I rephrase this indirect, reported speech as a direct speech?

👉 That said, if you would like to have more support or guidance, please feel free to check out this Lesson in two parts first, or just get in contact with me via the form here and I will be happy to answer any question you might have!


📙 ‘[Maggie] had told Tom, however, that she should like him to put the worms on the hook for her, although she accepted his word when he assured her that worms couldn’t feel (it was Tom’s private opinion that it didn’t much matter if they did).’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphases mine)


📙 ‘But if Tom had told his strongest feeling at that moment, he would have said, “I’d do just the same again.”’ [Note: “I’d” is short for “I would …”]

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphases mine)


📙 ‘Suddenly it occurred to her that they might think she was an idiot: Tom had said that her cropped hair made her look like an idiot, and it was too painful an idea to be readily forgotten.’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphases mine)


📙 Mr Stelling was so broad-chested and resolute that he felt equal to anything; he would become celebrated by shaking the consciences of his hearers, and he would by-and-by edit a Greek play, and invent several new readings. He had not yet selected the play, for having been married little more than two years, his leisure time had been much occupied with attentions to Mrs Stelling; but he had told that fine woman what he meant to do some day, and she felt great confidence in her husband, as a man who understood everything of that sort.

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphases mine)


📙 ‘One day, soon after Philip had told this story, he and Maggie were in the study alone together while Tom’s foot was being dressed.’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphases mine)


📙 ‘“O, I must go,” said Maggie, earnestly, looking at Dr Kenn with an expression of reliance, as if she had told him her history in those three words.’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphases mine)

✍️ Note: This sentence is not indirect reported speech but direct speech since we are hearing Maggie’s own words. But her words are placed in a context, that is, in the past – ‘said Maggie’. Yet what she said in her present, using a modal verb of obligation (“must go”), remains what it was when she said it.

If we wanted to change this again to an indirect speech sentence, we would have to change the modal verb ‘must go’ to ‘had to’ (this is covered in Lesson #230, where I include a list of verbs that change when transformed into indirect speech sentences). The sentence would then read something like this:

✒️ Maggie said earnestly that she had to go, while looking at Dr Kenn with an expression of reliance, as if she had told him her history in those three words.


📙 ‘ … [I]ndeed it had been said that she was actually engaged to young Wakem …’

– George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (emphases mine)

✍️ You will notice from these examples taken from The Mill on the Floss that Eliot uses this construction a lot: past perfect in one part of the sentence (usually the retelling part) and the past simple or a modal verb in another part of the sentence (the retold words part).

This is a very common construction in English, especially when we are telling stories about something that was said in the past.

So I trust that this Lesson has helped you to understand (and begin using) these different verb tenses together correctly in direct or indirect speech sentences – good luck! 😊

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)