Reported Speech relies on Backshifting to express that verbs in the reporting context are further back in the past than they were in their original context. This topic covers two different methods of making a verb string 'more past'.

What to Expect

Backshifting is the alteration of verb forms in a new context to match the sequence of tenses from the original context. For example, if something was present then, it should be past later. Backshifting is important for Reported Speech so that we can better reflect the original context, which may not happen if we use the original tenses. Backshifting is also used to illustrate uncertainty for some reason, so we might use it in polite requests as well.

There are two methods to backshifting. One requires an understanding of various tenses. The other focuses on auxiliary verbs. Use whichever makes the most sense for your students.


Learners should already be familiar with the following:

Auxiliary Verbs, aka Helping Verbs: words that only exist in relation to the main verb; they can alter the voice, aspect (progressive and/or perfect), or modality of the verb string. Auxiliary Verbs include be, do, have, and modal verbs. Often when the meaning or usage of a verb changes slightly, it’s the auxiliary verb(s) that reflect that change.

Various Tenses – both the form and the usage of each. Perfect tenses are common in Backshifting, including the Past Perfect tense. When reporting plans or predictions, it’s good to know Future-in-the-Past as well.

Time Expressions inform us when a verb takes place. A change in a time expression may require the backshifting of a verb. Conversely, when backshifting verbs, we may need to ensure that time expressions adjust accordingly.

Proficiency Level

Backshifting as a topic is not standard for any particular level. But since it’s pertinent to a few other grammar points, Insights recommends teaching it around the same time as Reported Speech.

*actual starting level varies from one course-book series to the next

Bonus Notes

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Reported Speech

Reported Speech relates a sentiment that was expressed previously, so it uses Backshifting to account for the time difference.
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Indirect Questions

Reported Questions uses Backshifting in the same way that standard Reported Speech does.
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