Reported Speech in English: What It is and How to Use It

Alex Johnson
June 25, 2020 ·
7 min read
Grammar
Style

Sometimes we may wish to report the words of others. In fact, this is quite a regular occurrence in any language.

There are two ways to do this: reported (indirect) speech, and direct speech.

Here’s how they work.

Direct speech

As the name would suggest, direct speech is when you directly report the words of another person.

“I’ll see you at the meeting on Wednesday,” he said.

Direct speech can always be identified in written speech through the use of speech marks (sometimes known as quotation marks). Please note that single or double marks can be used depending on the habit of the individual user.

Direct speech is the easier of the two options because it does not involve any grammatical or structural changes to the original sentence.

Reported (indirect) speech

Reported speech involves grammatical, and sometimes structural, changes.

Here is an example of the same sentence as above but this time delivered in reported speech.

“I’ll see you at the meeting on Wednesday,” he said. (direct speech)

He said (that) he would see me at the meeting today. (reported/indirect speech)

Aa can be seen, considerable changes have been made to the original sentence. First of all, the speech marks have been removed. Next, we must consider the verb tense used. Fortunately, the rules covering this are written in stone:

Direct speechIndirect / Reported speech
1) Present simplePast simple
2) Present PerfectPast Perfect
3) Present continuousPast continuous
4) Past simplePast Perfect
5) Past continuousPast perfect continuous
6) Past perfectPast perfect (no change)
7) Past perfect continuousPast perfect continuous (no change)
8) Future simple (will)Would
9) CanCould
10)All other Modal Verbs (might/may/could/should/would)No change

As can be seen from the above table, the original verb tense must be adapted accordingly. Let us look at the original examples once more:

“I’ll see you at the meeting on Wednesday,” he said. (direct speech)

He said (that) he would see me at the meeting today. (reported/indirect speech)

The verb tense in the original, direct speech sentence (‘will’) has been adapted to ‘would’ as necessary. This reflects the difference in time between when the comment was originally made, and when it was reported.

This fact is made most obviously clear when the present tense is adapted to the past, as follows:

“I want to talk to you,” she said.

She said that she wanted to talk to me.

As is dictated, ‘want’ has become wanted’ because the request is now clearly in the past.

Please note that, on some occasions, adapting the present tense to the past tense may not be necessary. For example:

“I like pizza,” she said.

She said she likes/liked pizza.

Because we can assume the state to still be true, the present tense is also correct in the reported sentence. 

Other changes

Let us look once more at the original pair of sentences:

“I’ll see you at the meeting on Wednesday,” he said. (direct speech)

He said (that) he would see me at the meeting today. (reported/indirect speech)

As well as the verb tense, both the subject and object have been adapted, and so has the time expression.

Of course, these amendments are all relative. Who was talking to who, and what is the time relationship between when the original sentence was communicated, and when it was reported? Always bear in mind these considerations when using reported speech.

Reported questions

Questions are a little bit different, and must be adapted in their own unique way. Generally speaking, there are two types of questions, and each must be considered separately.

  1. “What is your name?” he asked.
  2. “Do you like pizza?” she asked.

The first question is an ‘information’ question, requiring some kind of specific detail in the answer. The second question, meanwhile, is quite simply a ‘yes/no’ question, where detail is optional.

Here are the changes that must be made to each question in reported (indirect) speech

  1. He asked me what my name was/is.
  2. She asked me if I liked pizza.

In the ‘information’ question, the original sentence must be restructured so it is now no longer a question, but an affirmative statement. That is because, when reported, it is no longer a question. The verb tense should also be adapted as per the rules with all reported speech transitions.

In the ‘yes/no’ question, the sentence must also be adapted, with the word ‘if’ (or ‘whether’) replacing the auxiliary. Again, the verb tense must be changed accordingly.

Reporting verbs

In the examples in this article we have included the classic reporting verbs ‘said’ and ‘asked’. ‘Tell’ is another classic.

In truth, these verbs are incredibly uninformative. In reality, they tell us nothing about the emotion or feeling of what was communicated.

Therefore, it is better to run through the many options of reporting verbs we have at our disposal to select an option which best describes the sentiment of the words. Of course, in formal or business English you may want to stay with the neutral words of ‘say’, ‘ask’ and ‘tell’, but to be a little more descriptive, why not check out some of these options:

  • admit
  • advise
  • beg
  • concede
  • enquire
  • explain
  • mutter
  • plead
  • promise
  • recommend
  • suggest
  • warn
  • whisper

There are almost countless others. Give your language more color by choosing something more descriptive.

And don’t forget, the Linguix AI-powered writing assistant can provide you not only with the grammatical and structural amendments that you need to be correct in your writing, but can also be used to adapt your style so it is suitable to your audience. Get lists of synonyms to help you identify the perfect word, too. 

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