Student Stumper 4: Perfect Modals in Reported Speech

QUESTION: The book says we never change should and could in reported speech. Is that true?

ANSWER: As I was preparing a lesson on modals and conditionals in reported speech, I came across an old online thread about changing what most grammar sources claim is unchangeable. An English language learner reasoned that in reported speech modals like should and could need to shift to perfect modals (should/ could have + past participle) if a past possibility is in question.

For example, the student wrote: My doctor told me I should have eaten more vegetables until I got better. This statement on its own seems fine, but what were the original words?

  • Situation A: “Why did you stop eating vegetables?” asked the doctor. “Your body needed the extra vitamins to fight off the illness. Now your condition has worsened. You should have eaten more vegetables until you got better.” This corresponds to the reported statement.
  • Situation B: “You are sick and your body needs extra vitamins to fight off the illness,” the doctor told me. “Don’t risk getting sicker. You should eat more vegetables until you get better.” This does not correspond to the reported statement. I would report the final sentence as follows: My doctor said I should eat more vegetables until I get better. Verbs referring to future events that have yet to occur don’t require a shift in verb tense.

I decided to form additional examples to test my logic as well as my instincts.

Example 1:         

My supervisor told me I should turn in weekly reports.

(present situation)  = It’s expected that I submit the reports.

Original statement: “You should turn in weekly reports.”

 

Example 2:         

My supervisor has told me repeatedly that I should turn in weekly reports.

(present situation) = I’ve been reminded often to turn in reports, but I don’t.

Original statement: “You should turn in weekly reports.”

 

Example 3:         

My supervisor told me repeatedly that I should turn in weekly reports.

(past situation)                 = I was reminded often to turn in reports, but I never did.

Original statement: “You should turn in weekly reports.”

 

Example 4:         

My supervisor told me I should have turned in weekly reports.

(past situation) = It was expected that I submit the reports, but I didn’t. I can’t change the past.

Original statement: “You should have turned in weekly reports.”

 

Do you agree so far? Note also, that we could avoid the use of modals entirely and report the statement as a command:

  • My supervisor told me to submit weekly reports. (present or past situation)
  • My supervisor had told me to submit weekly reports. (only a past situation)

 

The same thread went on to pose a list of conditional statements to consider. Again, the student argued there was a need to change all modals to their past forms in reported statements. Before I could firmly disagree, I composed my own set of statements to test my reasoning:

 

Example 1:

 “If you turn in reports, you won’t get in trouble.”

> My co-worker said that if I turned in reports, I wouldn’t get in trouble.

(real situation in the present and future – verb tenses change)

 

Example 2:

“If you turned in reports, you wouldn’t get in trouble.”

> My co-worker said that if I turned in reports, I wouldn’t get in trouble.

(hypothetical situation in the present and future – no tense changes)

 

Example 3:

“If you had turned in reports, you wouldn’t have gotten in trouble.”

> My co-worker said that if I had turned in reports, I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble.

(hypothetical situation in the past – no tense changes)

 

Example 4:

“If you had turned in reports, you wouldn’t be in trouble.”

> My co-worker said that if I had turned in reports, I wouldn’t be in trouble (now).

(hypothetical situation in the past and present – no tense changes)

 

If you are in agreement with my logic, the conclusion is that perfect modals always retain their form in reported speech and modals referring to the present or future may change (e.g., can to could), but they don’t change to perfect forms.

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