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 Reported / Indirect speech

Richard Kang from Singapore asks:
Is it correct to say: ‘She told me she was a teacher’ (she is still teaching). Or should I say: ‘She told me she is a teacher.’ I am always troubled by this situation.

Serdar frmo Turkey asks:
My question is related to reported speech. Most grammar books say: If the reported sentence deals with a fact or the general truth, the present tense can be retained: ‘She said that the moon causes the tides’. So is it possible to say the following sentence is correct: ‘He wanted to learn where he can change some money.’ I am thinking that the man needs to change money periodically and wants to learn where he can generally do this?

Rasanka Saroshini Nissanka from Sri Lanka asks:
Please explain to me all about direct and indirect speech.

Roger replies:more questions

Reported statements

The general rule is that when the reporting verb (e.g. 'she said (that)', 'they told me (that)', 'we thought (that)', 'he informed me that', 'I wondered whether', 'he wanted to know (if)' is in the past, we usually convert the verb form in the direct speech sentence into one which is more 'past' in reported speech. Hence:

present simple > past simple;
present progressive > past progressive;
past simple > past perfect;
present perfect > past perfect;
present perfect progresseive > past perfect progressive;
can/may/shall/will > could/might/should/would;


Consider the following examples

I love you. > He told me he loved me.
I'm going out now. > She informed me she was going out.
I’m sure we have met before. > He was sure we had met before.
I’ve been having a brilliant time in Cyprus. > She phoned to tell me that she had been having a brilliant time in Cyprus.
I'll be wearing my red dress to the party. > You said you would be wearing your red dress to the party, but you’re not!
I can’t really fly, daddy. > My son admitted that he couldn’t really fly.
I may be back late tonight. > He let me know that he might be back late this evening.

But you are correct, Richard and Serdar. If we are reporting a fact or something that is still true, the direct speech form can often be retained. So in your example, Richard, if the person you are talking about is still teaching then both these sentences are correct.

  • ‘She told me she was a teacher.’
  • ‘She told me she is a teacher.’
In your example, Serdar, the reference is to one specific occasion of changing money, so the sentence has to read:
  • 'He wanted to learn where he could change some money.'


1: Sometimes, whether you use one or the other depends upon how you see it. Take the two reporting statements:

  • ‘She told me she loved me’ and ‘She said she loves me’

In the first, it might be the case that what she said was not true, whilst in the second, it clearly is the case that you believe what she says.

2: The past perfect does not change in reported speech as there is no verb form further 'back in time':

  • 'I had never smoked before I went to Jane’s party.' > 'She maintained that she had never smoked before she went to Jane’s party.'
3: I if the reporting verb is in the present tense, the verb form in the reported statement remains the same. Consider the following examples which are all about a murder investigation:
  • 'I have no idea where Jim Smith is.' > 'He says he has no idea where Jim Smith is.'

  • 'I haven’t seen him since last Easter.' > 'He claims he hasn’t seen him since last Easter.'

  • 'I didn’t kill him! I am innocent!' > 'He insists he’s innocent.

Reported questions I can’t explain all aspects of reported speech in this one reply, Rasanka, but I would like to spend just a couple of minutes discussing reported questions, as I find that my own students often have greatest difficulty in coping with this aspect. For reported questions you also need to remember the need to move the verb form ‘one tense back’. But, additionally, you need to remember that there is no inversion of subject and verb and no 'do', 'does' or 'did' in reported questions. Consider the following:

What’s the matter? > I wanted to know what the matter was.
How do you feel today? > The doctor asked me how I felt.
Where are you going so late at night? > I asked her where she was going so late at night.
Who’s that girl in the red dress? > I wondered who that girl in the red dress was.
How did you make that salad? > I couldn’t work out how she had made that salad.
Which Easter Egg would you like? > He asked his grandson which Easter Egg he wanted.
Which Easter Egg did you buy? > His wife wanted to know which Egg he had bought.

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