Wabii Caasluga

Reported speech

Meaning and use

If someone says something that you want to tell another person, you can report it using direct speech or reported speech.

In direct speech we use speech (or quotation) marks to show the exact words the person said.

"I’m hungry."

"I love chicken sandwiches."

We can also use a reporting verb to show who was speaking.

He says: "I’m hungry."

She tells me: "I love chicken sandwiches."

Say and tell are both reporting verbs. We use tell when we say who we are speaking to.

CORRECT: She tells me she loves chicken sandwiches. (The speaker is talking to ‘me’.)

CORRECT: She says she loves chicken sandwiches. (We don’t know who the speaker is talking to.

WRONG: She says me she loves chicken sandwiches. (We don’t use ‘me’ with the reporting verb ‘say’.)

CORRECT: She said TO me she loves chicken.

If the reporting verb is in the present tense, then the reported statement stays in the present tense:

Direct speech

"He’s hungry", he says.

She tells me, "I love chicken sandwiches."

Reported speech

He says he is hungry.

She tells me she loves chicken sandwiches.

If the reporting verb is in the past tense, we usually change the present form to a past form in reported speech.

Direct speech

"He’s hungry", he said.

She told me, "I love chicken sandwiches."

Reported speech

He said he was hungry.

She told me she loved chicken sandwiches.

We change the pronoun when the speaker or listener changes.

A boy tells his mother: "I’m hungry.

Later, the boy’s mother tells the father: He said he was hungry.

We can use that, but we can also miss it out and the meaning is the same.

He said that he was hungry. > He said he was hungry.

She told me that she loved chicken sandwiches. > She told me she loved chicken sandwiches.

Form

In reported speech, we usually move the direct speech verb one step back in the past.

1)   Present simple -> past simple

"I know you." -> She said she knew him.

2)   Present continuous -> past continuous

"I am having coffee" -> He said he was having coffee.

3)   Present perfect -> past perfect

"I have finished my homework" -> He said he had finished his homework.

4)   Present perfect continuous -> past perfect continuous

"I have been studying Chinese" -> She said she had been studying Chinese.

5)   Is going to - > was going to

"I am going to go home" -> She said she was going to go home.

6)   Future simple - > would

"I will go to the bank later" -> He said he would go to the bank later.

Notes

1) A reported statement in the past simple often stays the same:

"I drove to work" -> She said she drove to work.

2) And you can't go further back in time than the past perfect, so it stays the same too:

"I had driven to work" -> She said she had driven to work.

3) Modal verbs: some change in reported speech:

“I can/can't speak Turkish” -> She said she could/couldn't speak Turkish.

“I must/mustn't wash my hair” -> She said she had to/didn't have to wash her hair.

4) Some modal verbs don't change:

“I could take the bus” -> He said he could take the bus.

“I should go to bed” -> She said she should go to bed.

“I might watch TV”   -> He said he might watch TV.

5) We don’t change the verb in reported speech if the situation hasn’t changed, for example if it’s a fact or is generally true:

"I love you" -> She told me she loves me.

6) But we can use the past tense to show you're not certain the other person loves her/him – for example, the other person wasn’t telling the truth

"I love you" -> She said she loved me.

Questions

A direct question is:

Where are you from?

A reported question is:

He asked where I was from.

To form a reported question, you need to follow these steps:

1) Use a reporting verb:

He asked where I was from.

2) Repeat the question word:

He asked where I was from.

3) Change the pronouns:

He asked where I was from.

4) Move the tense back:

He asked where I was from.

5) Use statement word order:

He asked where I was from.

Note: Yes/no questions

For yes/no questions, we use if or whether.

Example: Is it two o'clock?

  • She asked if it was two o'clock
  • She asked whether it was two o'clock

Form summary

Positive

"I love you." > He said he loved her.

"I’ve been working hard." > She told me that she’d been working hard.

"I’ll see you later." > He said he would see me later.

Negative

"I didn’t have time to go shopping." > He said he hadn’t had time to go shopping. “I can’t talk to you." > She told me that she couldn’t talk to me.

"I wouldn’t want to live in the country." > He said he wouldn’t want to live in the country.

 

Question

"Where can I buy a hamburger?" > She asked where she could buy a hamburger.

"Who must I see at the bank?" > He asked who he had to see at the bank.

"Are you going to Leila’s party?" > She asked if I was going to Leila’s party.

Short answers

“Yes, I am. / No, I’m not.”> I said I was. / I said I wasn’t.

Take note: facts and general truths We don’t change the verb in reported speech if the situation hasn’t changed, for example if it’s a fact or is generally true. Compare:

She told me she loves me. (The speaker uses the present tense to show (s)he believes the other person still loves her/him now.)

She told me she loved me. (The speaker uses the past tense to show (s)he isn’t certain the other person loves her/him – for example, the other person wasn’t telling the truth.)

Take note: the past perfect

The past perfect doesn’t change in reported speech because there isn’t a verb form further 'back in time'.

"I had never eaten sushi before I went to Japan." > 'She told me that she had never eaten sushi before she went to Japan.

Take note: reporting verbs

We can use different verbs to report our thoughts, opinions or intentions.

"I know which way to go." -> He thought he knew which way to go.

"I stole the books." -> He admitted that he had stolen the books.

"Why doesn’t she like me?" -> He wondered why she didn’t like him.

Spoken English

Some contracted forms in reported speech can be difficult to hear, for example the past perfect and conditional. He asked who’d eaten the cake. I told him he’d have to take the train. In the first example, the words ‘who’and ‘had’ become who’d. In the second example, ‘he’and ‘would’ become he’d. In both examples, two different words are shortened to just a /d/ sound. So, listen carefully for past tense contractions – make sure you get them right.