When we need to stress that a clause is unreal, we backshift the verbs. Backshifting is the process of altering a verb form so that it matches a tense normally set further in the past than the original verb form. For example, to express a present meaning, we use a past form. Backshifting is done to express uncertainty or perceived unlikelihood or impossibility, and is therefore regularly used for the Unreal Mood.

What to Expect

Backshifting is the alteration of verb forms within a sequence of tenses so that the form is more past than the meaning. For example, to express a present meaning, we use a past form. Backshifting is done to express uncertainty or perceived unlikelihood or impossibility, and is therefore regularly used for the Unreal Mood. Backshifting can also show an actual change in temporal context and thus is used in Reported Speech 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.

Students would probably first encounter Backshifting while learning either Reported Speech or Conditionals.  While Backshifting could be introduced before either of these two subjects, it might be tricky for students to understand the purpose of Backshifting without having first work with one of its common applications.

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 Conditionals.

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

Bonus Notes

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One of the most common ways that backshifting is used is in Conditional sentences.
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Wishes & Regrets

Backshifting is a key feature of the Unreal Clauses expressing Wishes & Regrets.
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