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Puzzling grammar and pickiness

Posted by TheFallen on February 20, 2003

In Reply to: Puzzling grammar? posted by Christopher Hyatt on February 20, 2003

: : : Hello,
: : : I know this forum is used to ask questions related to idiom. But I do trust you about any interpretations of English grammar. I had post the following questions in different grammar forums but I got totally different answers. I was quite puzzled by it, and wondering if you could help me out. Here're the questions:
: : : 1.Which is grammatically correct and natural?
: : : (a) I heard he said you won't come to my party next week.
: : : (b) I heard from him that you won't come to my party next week.
: : : (c) I heard from him that you wouldn't come to my party next week.
: : : (d) I heard it from him that you won't come to my party next week.
: : : (e) I heard it from him that you wouldn't come to my party next week.
: : : 2. If some of them are correct, do they share the same meaning?
: : : One answered that (a) is the most natural and (d) and (e) are incorrect. The other answered that (a) is incorrect and the rest(b,c,d,e) are correct.
: : : Thank you very much for your help.

: : a, b, and c are correct. d and e are incorrect.

: : a means SOMEBODY ELSE (not he) reported to me that he said you will not come.

: : b means HE HIMSELF told me you will not come.

: : c means the same thing as b. There may be a difference: a speaker might use c to mean you will actively refuse to come to my party and b to mean you simply won't be there, for whatever reason, perhaps a reason outside your control. But speakers who choose b or c do not necessarily have that difference in mind.

: ~~~~~~
: I agree 100% with R Berg

Beautifully put by Ms Berg as ever. The two constructions "I heard (that) he said (that)..." as used in Example A, and "I heard from him that..." as used in Examples B and C, do differ in meaning exactly as described. Both constructions are dealing with something that a crusty grammar book would call "Reported Speech".

However, although all three examples are perfectly acceptable these days, I have a dim and distant memory that the rule used to be that, if one is dealing with reporting speech where the statement being reported was in the Future tense (will not/won't), then one should strictly speaking choose the Conditional tense (would not/wouldn't) to report it. Don't get me wrong here - Examples A and B are both legitimate and intelligible - but I can't help thinking that Example C is the "most correct".

I think the issue's confusing because of two things. Firstly, your examples quite properly use elided negatives (won't/wouldn't), which help to muddy the waters, and also your examples again quite properly are set out as statements in the 1st person singular, a thing which makes them seem like dialogue in their own right, and then giving the problem of dealing with Reported Speech embedded within Actual Speech.

To try to make this easier to understand, here's an example that I hope removes those confusions.

Let's suppose that what Bill actually said to Fred was this: "John will resign next week."

If I'm then to describe Fred's conversation with Bill in writing, my options are:-

a) Fred heard from Bill that John will resign next week.

b) Fred heard from Bill that John would resign next week.

To me, b) is clearly the correct choice.

Any other opinions here, because I might quite possibly be talking drivel. Plus, if I'm being overly picky, I'll attempt to excuse myself on the grounds that I spent too many years being taught languages in the old-fashioned way, where you were compelled to focus on what people ought to do, rather than what they quite happily did. Other linguists of a certain age would sympathise.