Grammar point: tense shifts in indirect speech

studyingI know this is not the “sexiest” topic but it’s something I was wondering about, but I should really start at the beginning.shouldn’t I? Well, I was sitting in a Celta course on Friday watching an excellent lesson being taught by a trainee on direct and indirect speech. He valiantly went through the rules with the students clarifying that verbs move from the simple past in direct speech go into the past perfect in indirect speech.

So far so good… until they were practising this by telling each other memorable events from their lives, told in twos and then reported back to others in an attempt to find the most interesting story ( a lovely activity, which worked very well, in fact ) One person said “It was a time when I was happy.” The student who was listening to this, when it came to reporting it to someone else, asked the teacher: “So should I say “She said it had been a time when she had been happy?” The teacher of course, following the rules said “Yes” but I have quite a few doubts about this myself. Wouldn’t it be just as , if not more natural to say “She said it was a time when she was happy….?” Any yet this is not a case of general truths… it was a specific time.

Is it a case of state verbs then, I wondered. But would we transform “I understood what she meant” to “She said she understood what she meant.” This sounds natural to me but so does “She said she’d understood what she meant.” Or even “She said she’s understood what she’s meant.” My gut feeling tells me though, that the difference is that the Past perfect highlights the specific “moment of meaning something or understanding” rather than the “fact” of understanding or meaning something. In this case it really is a matter of states or actions, I think.

Well, it’s been a long day and I think I’m going round and round in circles… but any ideas?

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