Reported Speech (Indirect Speech)  

What is reported speech?

When we tell other people what someone else told us, it is called indirect speech or reported speech. We use reporting verbs to introduce the information that was spoken previously.

Reporting verbs

The most common so-called “reporting verbs” are say and tell. When we use tell, we need to use another person’s name, or a personal pronoun representing him or her, as an indirect object.
For example:
Remember, the personal pronouns are me, you, him, her, it, us, and them. We can also change the indirect object and use a person’s name, as in “She told Mark she was late for the appointment yesterday.”
Other reporting verbs include ask, instruct, explain, mention, suggest, claim, and many more. Although we will focus on say and tell in this article, let’s see some examples that employ other reporting verbs:
  • “He asked if I could come in early tomorrow.”
  • “She explained that she was only joking.”
  • “I merely suggested that we should go home early.”

Shifting grammatical tense in indirect speech

The conventional grammar rule is to go back a tense when you report to another person what someone said to you. This is because we usually put the reporting verb in the past tense (I asked, she said, they told us, he suggested, etc.), and so the speech that is being reported must shift back as well.
In modern English, though, it is quite common to keep the verb tense the same. This is especially true in cases where the reporting verb remains in the present tense and/or that which is being reported is still currently true.
Let’s have a look at each verb tense and examine how the sentence changes when speech is reported.

Present simple tense

Direct speech: “I live in Germany.”
Reported speech: “He said I lived in Germany.”
But because the reported speech is still true, it is often left in the present simple tense:
  • He told them I live in Germany.”

Past simple tense

Direct speech: “She was a carpenter before she moved here.”
Reported speech: “She said she had been a carpenter before she moved here.”
With the past tense, the general rule is to move it back a tense to the past perfect tense. However, for action verbs in the past tense, it is much more common for the reported speech to remain in the past tense:
  • She went to the supermarket this morning.”
  • I told him she went to the supermarket this morning.” or:
  • I said she had gone to the supermarket this morning.”

Present continuous tense

Direct speech: “He is writing a letter to their friend.”
Reported speech: If he is writing the letter at the exact moment it is reported to another person, we generally say either:
  • She says he is writing a letter to their friend.”
or:
  • She said he is writing a letter to their friend.”
If the reported action happened some time before it was reported, we shift the reported speech back one tense to the past continuous, as in:
  • She told us he was writing a letter to their friend.”

Past continuous tense

Direct speech: “You were sleeping when I called.”
Reported speech: “He said you were sleeping when I called.”
In modern English, it is very common to maintain the past continuous tense in the reported speech. However, the conventional grammar rule is to change the reported tense to the past perfect continuous tense, as in:
  • He told me you had been sleeping when I called.”

Present perfect tense

Direct speech: “I have been to Paris four times.”
Reported speech: “She told me she has been / had been to Paris four times.”
When reporting an action in the present perfect, it is common to either maintain the tense in reported speech, or to shift it back to the past perfect. However, if the reported speech is used in contrast to another event or action in the past, then the past perfect must be used. For example:
  • She said she had been to Paris four times before she met Tom.”

Past perfect tense

Direct speech: “The film had ended when I switched on the TV.”
Reported speech: “He said the film had ended when he’d switched on the TV.”
Reported speech in the past perfect remains the same, as there is no other tense beyond the past perfect. The other element of the sentence (“when I switched on the TV”) conventionally goes into the past perfect tense as well.
However, it is also common for this to remain in the past simple in reported speech, as in:
  • He told me the film had ended when he switched on the TV.”

Past perfect continuous tense

Direct speech: “When she finally arrived, I had been waiting for over two hours.”
Reported speech remains the same, as there is no tense beyond the past perfect continuous:
  • He said he had been waiting for over two hours when she finally arrived.”

Future simple tense

Direct speech: “I will call you tomorrow.”
In reported speech, will goes back a tense and becomes would:
  • He said he would call me tomorrow.”
It is also common for the future simple to remain in the same tense in reported speech, especially if what was reported happened very recently. For example:
  • Person A: “What did Barry say just now?”
  • Person B: “He said/says he will call me tomorrow.”

Special cases

Can

Direct speech: “I can swim.”
In reported speech, as with will, can moves back a tense and becomes could:
  • She told me she could swim.”

Must

Direct speech: “I must go.”
In reported speech, must can either remain in the simple present, or else take the past tense of have to in reported speech, as in:
  • "She said she had to go.”
or:
  • She told me she must go.”

Modal auxiliary verbs

If we use the modal auxiliary verbs should, would, could, may, might, or ought to, then direct speech and reported speech are always the same.
For example:
Direct speech: “You should take an aspirin.”
Reported speech: “She said I should take an aspirin.”
Direct speech: “I would phone him if I had his number.”
Reported speech: “She told me she would phone him if she had his number.”
Direct speech: “They could stay another day if you want.”
Reported speech: “They said they could stay another day if I wanted.”
Direct speech: “I might/may be late.”
Reported speech: “I told them I might/may be late.”

Reporting the negative

Where we put the negating not or never depends on what is negative in the reported speech: the speech being reported or the report itself. Both cases are simple to structure.

Reporting negative speech

When we report negative speech, we simply use the reporting verbs and tense shifts that we’ve looked at already. For example:
Direct speech: “I did not buy a car.” (negative past tense)
Reported speech: “He said he hadn’t bought a car.” (shifts to the negative past perfect)
However, as with reporting speech in the positive past simple, it is common in modern English to leave the reported speech in the negative past simple, as in:
  • He said he didn’t buy a car.”

Reporting negative commands

There are two general ways to report imperative speech that was in the negative: we either use not to before the verb of a reported clause without a subject, or else use was/were not to before the verb of a reported clause with a subject. (We often contract was/were with not in this construction.) For example:
Direct speech: “Don’t speak.”
Reported speech:
  • He said not to speak.”
  • He said I wasn’t to speak.”
  • I told you we were not to speak.”

Giving negative reports

When we are giving a negative report of quoted speech, we typically use the negative past tense of the reporting verb:
Direct speech: “She is studying for a test.”
Reported speech: “She didn’t say she was studying for a test.”
If we want to put the report further in the past, we can also use the negative past perfect, as in:
  • She hadn’t said she was studying for a test.”

Using infinitives to report imperatives, requests, and advice

When we report orders, requests, or advice, we can use the infinitive form of the verbs that the other person has said.

Imperatives (orders)

Direct speech: “Stand up straight!”
Reported speech: “The teacher said to stand up straight.”

Requests

Direct speech: “Can you take me to the airport, please?”
Reported speech: “He asked me to take him to the airport.”

Advice

Direct speech: “You should study a bit harder next time.”
Reported speech: “She advised me to study a bit harder.”
Quiz

1. What is the conventional rule for the verb tense of speech that we report?





2. What does the reporting verb tell require that the verb say does not?





3. Which verbs always remain in the same tense when they are reported?





4. Which verb form is uniquely used to reporting commands, requests, and advice?





5. Which of these is not a reporting verb?





6. Complete the following sentence with the appropriate tense according to conventional grammar rules:
Direct speech: “I have seen that movie already.”
Reported speech: “He said he ________ that movie already.”





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