This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

Last updated at 09:36 BST, Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Reported speech

People chatting

She asked me who the best cook was

A question from Nuria in Catalonia:
Are there any cases where the inversion rule can be kept while reporting a question? Could we consider the following sentences correct?

  • She asked me who was the best cook.
  • She asked me what had I been doing.
  • She asked me what would I like for breakfast.

Gareth Rees answers:

Click below to hear the answer:

Hello Nuria. Thank you for your question about reported speech, which is an area of grammar that often causes problems for students. Your question refers to the way we report questions, so I will cover the basics on that first.

When we make a standard question, we usually place an auxiliary verb, such as 'do' or 'would', before the subject and the main verb, or, if the main verb is a simple tense of 'to be', we place that before the subject. This, as you say, is the inversion rule. Also, when writing the question, we place a question mark at the end. Here are a couple of examples.

  • What do you want to eat tonight?
  • Who is the best cook?

When we report the question, we do not use this question grammar. So, we do not add an auxiliary verb, we do not change the word order from a normal sentence, and we do not add a question mark. Consequently, my two examples are reported as follows:

  • He asked me what I wanted to eat that night.
  • She asked me who the best cook was.

In your question, you said that you thought it was possible to use the normal question word order when the main verb is 'to be'.

I am afraid that this is not actually correct. When you report a question, any question, you do not use question word order. So, all of your examples:

  • She asked me who was the best cook.
  • She asked me what had I been doing.
  • She asked me what would I like for breakfast

Are, I'm sorry to say, grammatically incorrect.

The interesting point though, is, why did you think they might be correct? I think this is because sometimes, in spoken English, you may hear something that seems to be a reported question, but in fact it is not. This often happens when people are telling a story from their lives, and they use phrases like 'I said' or 'she asked' to introduce the actual words used. Listen to this example:

  • I went into the shop and I said, "This shirt shrank in the wash. I want my money back." The sales assistant asked me, "Do you have the receipt?"
  • I said, "No, I don't. I lost it" and then she asked "Where did you lose it?"
  • I replied, "It was in the shirt pocket when I washed it." She then asked, "Why was it in the pocket?" At which point I asked, "Where is the manager."

In all of those examples, although I am telling you what happened and what was said, I am not using reported speech. Did you notice how I paused before saying each question, after the words 'said' and 'asked'? For example:

  • She then asked, "Why was it in the pocket?"
  • At which point I asked, "Where is the manager"

If you are telling a story like this, you must pause in this way. If you don't pause, it sounds like you are using reported speech, and so then your grammar is wrong, because you haven't changed the question grammar.

So, if we go back to your original example, we can either say

  • She asked me who the best cook was


  • She asked me, "Who was the best cook?"

I hope that this has answered your question. I recommend that you listen to as much of the BBC radio service as you can to try and hear examples of this grammar in action.

About Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees has a BA (hons) in History and Philosophy of Science, CTEFLA, and DELTA. He has taught EFL, EAP and Business English in China, Spain and England, and he is the co-author of the Language Leader Elementary and Pre-Intermediate English language course books (Pearson Longman). He currently teaches English in the Language Centre at the University of the Arts, London.


Latest answers