What is grammatical speech?
Grammatical speech refers to how we report something another person said. Depending on how we do this, we sometimes have to inflect (change the form of) the verbs that we use.
Speech is usually divided between two types: direct speech and reported speech (also known as indirect speech). There are also other sub-categories of speech, which we’ll look at a little later in this section.
Both direct and indirect speech use what are known as reporting verbs, the most common of which are say and tell. When we use tell, we need to use another person’s name or a personal pronoun as an indirect object. Other reporting verbs include ask, instruct, explain, mention, suggest, claim, and many more.
Direct speech refers to the direct quotation of something that someone else said. It is sometimes known as quoted speech. Because the quotation happened in the past, we put the reporting verb into the past simple tense, but we don’t change the verbs used within the quotation. We also punctuate sentences in a certain way when we use direct speech in writing.
Punctuating direct speech
When used in writing, we indicate the quoted speech with quotation marks. (Note that American English uses double quotation marks ( “ ” ), while British English typically uses single quotation marks ( ‘ ’ ).)
If we are quoting an entire sentence, we set it apart with one or two commas. For example:
- John said, “I’ll never live in this city again.”
- Mary told him, “I want to have another baby,” which took him by surprise.
- The other day, my daughter asked, “Mommy, why do I have to go to school, but you don’t?”
However, if we are quoting a fragment of speech that is used as an integral part of the overall sentence, then no commas are used. We still use reporting verbs in the past tense, though. For instance:
- John said he feels “really bad” about what happened.
Direct speech before a reporting verb
We can also put direct speech before the reporting verb. Again, we usually use a comma to separate the quoted text from the unquoted text, as in:
- “I can’t wait to see daddy,” my son said.
However, if a question mark or exclamation point is used in the direct speech, then we do not use a comma:
- “Where are we going?” asked Sally.
- “This is going to be great!” Tom exclaimed.
End punctuation — American vs. British English
In American English, a period or comma used at the end of direct speech always appears within the quotation marks.
In British English, however, if the quotation ends in a period or comma, it is usually placed outside the quotation mark, as in:
- The CEO said, ‘This is a great day for the company’.
- ‘I want to be a doctor when I grow up’, Susy told us yesterday.
Note that if a quoted sentence ends in a question mark or exclamation point that belongs to the quotation, it will appear within the quotation marks. If the question mark or exclamation point belongs to the overall sentence (that is, it isn’t actually part of the quotation), it will appear outside the quotation marks. This is the same in both American and British English. For example:
- Samantha asked, “How long will it take to get there?”
- But I don’t want to just ‘see how things go’!
Using multiple sets of quotation marks
If a sentence already uses quotation marks, then we have to differentiate between the quoted speech and the rest of the sentence. If we are using double quotation marks, then we have to put the quoted speech in single quotation marks; if it is in single quotation marks, then the quoted text is put into double quotation marks. The rest of the punctuation in the sentence does not change. For example:
- “They told us, ‘We don’t have the budget for more staff.’”
- ‘The prime minister is reported to have said that he is “in disagreement with the president’s remarks”, which prompted a quick response from the White House.’
When we tell other people what someone else told us without directly quoting that person, it is called reported speech. (It is also sometimes known as indirect speech or indirect quotation.)
We still use reporting verbs in reported speech, but we no longer use quotation marks because we are reporting a version of what was said. We also do not use commas to set the reported speech apart, though we often (but not always) introduce it with the word that. For example:
- Janet said she would go to the station herself.
- He told us that he wanted to be alone.
Shifting verb tense in reported speech
The conventional grammar rule when using reported speech is to shift the verb tense one degree into the past. This is because we usually put the reporting verb in the past tense (I asked, she said, they told us, he suggested, etc.), so the speech that is being reported must shift back as well. In the table below, we’ll look at the way sentences in various tenses are shifted in reported speech according to this convention:
I live in Germany.
He said he lived in Germany.
I was a carpenter before I moved here.
She said that she had been a carpenter before she moved here.
He is writing a letter to our friend.
present continuous tense shifts to past continuous tense
She told us he was writing a letter to our friend.
She was sleeping when you called.
He told me you had been sleeping when I called.
I have been to Paris four times.
She said she had been to Paris four times.
The film had ended when I switched on the TV.
He said the film had ended when he’d switched on the TV.
When she finally arrived, I had been waiting for over two hours.
No shift, as there is no tense further in the past.
He said he had been waiting for over two hours when she finally arrived.
I will call you tomorrow.
The modal verb will shifts to its past-tense version, would.
He told me that he would call me tomorrow.
It should be noted, though, that it is quite common to keep the verb tense the same in modern English. This is especially true in cases in which the reporting verb remains in the present tense, or when the thing being reported is still currently true. To learn more about such nuances, continue on to the Reported Speech section.
Other categories of speech
While direct and reported speech are the two main forms of grammatical speech, there are two other sub-categories that we use: free indirect speech and silent speech.
Free Indirect Speech
Free indirect speech (also known as free indirect discourse) is used to indicate the thoughts or mental processes of a character; as such, it is most commonly found in prose writing. It is most often used in the form of a question, rhetorically asking something about the character’s situation.
We do not use reporting verbs to introduce or indicate free indirect speech, and, like reported speech, it is used without quotation marks. For example:
- He had no money, no job, and no friends. How had his life arrived to such a desperate point?
- Janet had just learned that she needed to give a speech to the entire school in less than an hour. What was she going to do?
Silent speech refers to a direct quotation that is said internally (i.e., silently) by someone to him- or herself. We still use reporting verbs, and we often apply the exact same punctuation rules to silent speech that we use in direct speech. For instance:
- “I’m never coming back to this town again,” he murmured to himself.
- She thought, “What a beautiful country.”
It is equally common, however, to use silent speech without quotation marks (although we still use commas in the same way). To make the quotation stand out from the rest of the text, some writers will use italics to indicate silent speech. Note that, if the reporting verb appears before the silent speech, we generally do not capitalize the first word if we don’t use quotation marks. For example:
- It will be quiet around here when the kids go to college, Dan thought.
- She asked herself, how am I going to get out of this one?
Whether you choose to use quotation marks, italics, or nothing at all is entirely a matter of personal preference when it comes to silent speech—the important thing is to be consistent.