Saturday, March 17, 2012

Reported speech

If I had to tell someone what Homer’s friend is saying, I would have two options:
  1. I could use the same words: He asked: “Do you want another beer?”.
  2. I could convey just the meaning and not the exact words: He asked Homer if he wanted another beer.
In the first example, I would be using direct speech, while in the second example I would be using indirect or reported speech.
As you can see, in direct speech we have to use quotation marks (“ ") to note that we are using the exact words the person said. In indirect speech these inverted commas are not used, and other changes take place. But, what are these changes?
  • Tenses. When the reporting verb is in the past, the verbs in the sentence usually change to a “more past” tense, because the speaker uttered the sentence in the past. Sue said: “I have finished my homework” changes to Sue said that she had finished her homework”. However, when the reporting verb is present, the tenses used are the same as those in the speaker’s original words. For example, imagine that you are translating what another person is saying:  “I don’t speak Spanish” changes to She says she doesn’t speak Spanish.

  • Pronouns and possessives. It’s easy to understand that if you are reporting what another person says, all the pronouns referring to the first and second person should be changed. Peter asked me: “Do you understand me?”. Peter asked me if I understood him.

  • Time and place expressions. The contexts in which a sentence is uttered and then reported can change enormously, so the words related to time and place should be changed accordingly. Imagine a phone conversation between a father and a son who is staying abroad in an exchange programme. The boy says: “I don’t like it here. I want to go home tomorrow. A few days later, a friend asks the father about the son and he reports  the conversation: He said that he didn’t like it there and he wanted to come home the next day. Notice also that the verb go has changed to come because the context in which the words were spoken has changed.

When reporting questions we have to take into account other changes apart from the ones previously stated:
  1. The order of the words is different: the auxiliary verb, if used, follows the subject. That is, there is no inversion.
  2. Do/ does / did are not used.
  3. Question marks (?) are not used either.
  4. Yes/no questions are introduced by if or whether. Sue asked: “Do you like spagetti?” changes to Sue asked if I liked spaghetti.
  5. Wh-questions keep the interrogative word. Paul asked Mary: “Where will you go on holiday?” changes to Paul asked Mary where she would go on holiday.
Orders, requests and advice are reported by using an infinitive. The teacher said: “Be quiet” changes to The teacher told the students to be quiet.

The verb suggest can either be followed by a gerund or a that-construction: “Let’s go to to cinema tonight”, suggested George can be changed to George suggested going to the cinema that night or George suggested that we (should) go to the cinema that night. Notice that the verb should can be omitted with no change of meaning.

The reporting verbs most widely used are say and tell. The difference in using one or the other is that tell must be followed by the indirect object, that is, the person to whom something is told, whereas say is usually followed by the direct object, that is, the thing that is said. When the indirect object follows say, it must be introduced by the preposition to. Notice the structure:
Say something to someone.
          D.O.         I.O.
Tell someone something.
          I.O.            D.O.
Apart from these, there are many other verbs that can introduce reported speech, such as advise, apologize, explain, command, etc, but they deserve another blog post, as each one of them has its own pattern.

In the following presentation you can find a complete list of the usual changes in reported speech. Then you can do the exercises provided to check how much you have learnt.


  1. I always start off by telling my students that the function of reported speech, with all its grammatical complexities, is well worth the trouble of painstingly learning, as they'll be able to gossip in English!

    For the teacher, it's interesting to read Stephen King's views on the use of reporting verbs in writing as well as those on the passive voice in his book "On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft".

    Kind regards.

    1. Great idea, Fer! I had never thought of that, but I'll use it in my classes and see if I get my students interested.
      With respect to Stephen King's book, I had no idea he also wrote about the topic of writing. I'll try to read it if I can get hold of it.
      Thank you very much for your interesting comment. Cheers!


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