English Grammar Guide

Reported or Indirect Speech

When we report what another person has said, this is called 'reported' or 'indirect speech'.

When we report what another person has said, this is called 'reported' or 'indirect speech'.
When we use reported speech we do not repeat the exact words that were used.


General Verbs relating to conversation

Speak is used to report the action (of talking/having a conversation), and not the actual words that are used.
Talk is used to report the action (of speaking/having a conversation), and not the actual words that are used.


Speak (spoke, spoken)
  • He spoke to the class about the problem.           (Speak to somebody; suggests a monologue)

  • He spoke with the class about the problem.           (Speak with somebody; suggests a conversation)

  • The chairman spoke for 30 minutes.           (Speak for; this is used to explain duration)

  • He didn't speak at the meeting.           (Speak at; this refers to the place or event)

  • He didn't speak during the meeting.           (Speak during; this refers to a duration of time)

  • The two men spoke about the problems in Palestine.           (Speak about; explains the topic of conversation)

  • She speaks five languages.           (Speak; languages)

  • He speaks very slowly.           (Speak; manner, style)

  • He speaks in a very quiet voice.           (Speak in; manner or style of voice)

  • She speaks with a very strong French accent.           (Speak with; manner or style of voice)

Now compare 'speak' with 'talk'


Talk (talked, talked)
  • He talked to the class about the problem.           (Talk to somebody; suggests a monologue)

  • He talked with the class about the problem.           (Talk with somebody; suggests a conversation)

  • The chairman talked for 30 minutes.           (Talk for; this is used to explain duration)

  • He didn't talk at the meeting.           (Talk at; this refers to the place or event)

  • He didn't talk during the meeting.           (Talk during; this refers to a duration of time)

  • The two men talked about the problems in Palestine.           (Talk about; explains the topic of conversation)

Reporting verbs

When we report what other people say, we use 'reporting' verbs. The most common of these are Say, Tell and Ask. As the conversations we report have usually happened in the past, these verbs are normally used in their past forms: Said, Told and Asked.


Say is used to report the words people use in general conversation. You say something (to someone) 
Tell is used when somebody gives information, orders or instructions. You tell somebody something.
Ask is only used to report questions. You ask (somebody) something.


Examples of use:


Say (said, said)

  • He said (that) Susan was tired.

  • He said (that) he was looking for a new job.

  • He didn't say a word/anything about his holiday.

  • When he left, he didn't say goodbye to me.

  • He said something to Susan, but I couldn't hear what he said.

  • He says he is the best salesman.

  • He didn't say how to switch of the printer.

  • He didn't say where he left the keys.

Tell (told, told)

  • He told me that he was tired.

  • He told us that he was looking for a new job

  • He didn't tell me about his holiday.

  • He told me to be quiet!

  • He didn't tell me how to switch of the printer.

  • He didn't tell me where he left the keys.

Ask (asked, asked)

  • He asked me to open the door..

  • He asked (me) if I was pregnant!

  • He asked (me) about the new manager.

  • He asked (me) where I lived.

  • He asked (me) where the printer was.

  • He asked (me) why I was unhappy.

  • He asked about/after you.

Changes to verbs and other words

When we use indirect speech we have to make certain changes:


1. Quotation marks:   When we write, quotation marks are not used:

  • Direct speech:     'You're stupid'

  • Indirect speech:   He told me that I was stupid.

2. That:  After some reporting verbs, (before the main verb) we often use 'that'. However, 'that' is often optional.

  • She said that she would be late.  (Or..)  She said she would be late.

  • They told us that our flight had been cancelled.  (Or..)  They told us our flight had been cancelled.¬†

3. Imperatives:   Commands and instructions (imperatives) are reported with the verb 'tell' and an infinitve, with 'to'.

  • Direct speech:         'Write to me.'

  • Reported speech:      He told me to write to him.

  • Direct speech:        'Be quiet!'

  • Reported speech:      He told the children to be quiet.

4. Tense changes:   When we report something another person said, we normally change the verb tenses to demonstrate the change in time between when the conversation happened and the present time. Normally, we change the main verb 'back' one tense. 

         'If Paul says 'I am tired', this would be reported as 'Paul said that he was tired'.
         'When Paul spoke, he used the present simple.
         'When the conversation is reported, the main verb (be) is moved back one tense, to past simple.


Examples:

  • Direct speech:         'I will be on time.'
    Reported speech:     She said (that) she would be on time.

  • Direct speech:         'I am at the airport'
    Reported speech:     When he called he said (that) he was at the airport.

  • Direct speech:          'I like fish.'
    Reported speech       He said (that) he liked fish.

  • Direct speech           'I went to the cinema last night.'
    Reported speech:      He said he had gone to the cinema the previous night.

  • Direct speech:           'I was walking towards your house when I saw an accident.'
    Reported speech:      He said he had been walking towards my house when he saw an accident.

But .... as there is not a tense 'older' than past perfect.....

  • Direct speech:          'I had only just finished eating when the phone rang.'
    Reported speech:      He said he had only just finished eating when the phone rang.

5. Change of meaning:   Although we normally change the tense of verbs when we use a past tense reporting verb, we do not change the tense if it would alter the meaning. When we talk about abilities, strong feelings, things we like, love or hate we normally report them using the same tense that was used in direct speech.

  • 'I love Paul.'    >    She said she loves Paul. 
    (If we say 'She said she loved Paul' this would suggest that she loved him in the past, but not now.)

  • 'I can't swim.'   >   He said he can't swim. 
    (We only change the tense to emphasize that he couldn't swim at the time he spoke, or if we believed the statement was false.)

6. Present tense reporting verb:  In some circumstances, for example when direct speech is reported immediately, when we are reporting things people often say or if we talk about things that are 'always true', we can use a present tense reporting verb.

  • 'I am the best football player in Italy.'  (He has said this many times)   >    He says he is the best football player in Italy.

  • 'I'm just parking my car. I'll be there in 30 seconds!'  (reported immediately)  >   She says she's just parking her car and she'll be here in 30 seconds.

7. References and pronouns:   We change pronouns and references to time/place to reflect the subject, the time and place in which the speech is reported.

  • 'I will meet you here tomorrow.'    >    He said he would meet me there the next day.

  • 'I'm flying to France tomorrow.'    >    He said he was flying to France the following day.

  • 'I visited my mother last night.'    >    He said he had visited his mother the night before / the previous night.

Reporting Questions

When we want to report questions, we can use the reporting verb 'Ask'.

To report a simple yes/no question we use 'If' followed by the rest of the question in the form of a statement (no inversion):

  • 'Are you French?'      >    He asked me if I was French.

  • 'Do you like pasta?'    >    He asked me if I liked pasta.

To report a question which uses the verb 'to have' to request something, we can use 'for' plus the a noun, instead of 'if':

  • 'Can I have a cigarette?'  >  He asked if he could have a cigarette.  (or)  He asked for a cigarette.

  • 'Boss, can we have a break? We're tired.'  >  The workers asked if they could have a break.  (or)  The workers asked for a break.

To report a question which used a question word (Who, When, etc.) we use the same question word, and the rest of the question in the form of a statement.

  • 'Where did you put my telephone? I can't find it.'  >  He asked me where I had put his telephone.

  • 'What is your favourite colour?'   >   He asked (me) what my favourite colour was.

  • 'How many pairs of shoes do you have?'   >   He asked me how many pairs of shoes I had.

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