Number one for English language teachers

Reported speech 1 – article

Type: Reference material

An article by Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on approaches to teaching reported speech.

Introduction

In English, there are two ways of telling someone what someone else has said. Often we may choose to repeat their actual words using a quote structure or quotation, e.g.

‘We’re getting married on Saturday!’ she said excitedly.

‘Are you going to invite your father?’ Joe asked.

However, when the information that someone conveys is more important than their actual words, we may want to explain what they have said using our own words, e.g.

She said that she was getting married on Saturday.
Joe asked whether she was going to invite her father to the wedding.

Examples like these are sometimes referred to as indirect speech or reported speech. Sentences in reported speech contain a reporting clause with a reporting verb like say or ask, e.g.

She said …
Joe asked …

This is followed by a reported clause showing someone’s original statement, question or thought, e.g.

… (that) she was getting married on Saturday.

… whether she was going to invite her father to the wedding.

Reporting statements and thoughts

If we want to report a statement or someone’s thoughts, we use a reported clause which usually begins with the conjunction that, e.g.

He said that he was going to resign.
She thinks that he has made the wrong decision.

However, in informal speech and writing, that is often left out, especially with the most frequently used reporting verbs such as say and think, e.g.

He said he was going to resign.
She thinks he has made the wrong decision.

The conjunction that is less likely to be left out with less common reporting verbs, especially those which have a more specific meaning than say or think, such as complain, explain, admit, agree, e.g.

He agreed that it would have been better to wait.
She complained that the seats were uncomfortable.

Sometimes reporting verbs are followed by a direct object which refers to the ‘hearer’, i.e: the person who the speech was originally directed towards, e.g.

She told them that she was getting married on Saturday.
He reminded her that he was working late.

With some reporting verbs, it is possible to choose whether or not to mention the hearer, e.g

I promised Jenny/her that I wouldn't be late.
I promised I wouldn't be late.

With certain reporting verbs, if we decide to mention the hearer, we must do so with a prepositional phrase, e.g.

She admitted (to me) that she had made a stupid decision.

He agreed (with Jenny) that it would have been better to wait. 

Reporting questions

Questions put into report structures are often referred to as reported questions or indirect questions, though they are not followed by question marks. The following are two examples of questions being put into report structures:

'Did the children enjoy the play?' I asked her if the children had enjoyed the play.

'Where do you live? He asked me where I lived.

The most common verb used for reporting questions is ask, though verbs such as inquire/enquire are sometimes used to report questions in a more formal way.

Reporting yes/no questions

Some types of question can be answered with simply yes or no. These types of questions are therefore often referred to as yes/no questions, e.g.

Do you speak Italian?
Does she like her new job?

To report a yes/no question, we use whether or if  in the reported clause, e.g.

She asked him if he spoke Italian.
I asked whether she liked her new job.

If  is generally used when the speaker has suggested one possibility that might be true, e.g.

I asked her if she had met Sophie before.

Whether is generally used when the speaker has suggested one or more possibilities, e.g.

I asked her whether she’d prefer to eat out or cook a meal at home.

Reporting wh- questions

Wh-questions cannot be answered by yes or no. They are questions in which someone asks for information about an event or situation, e.g.

  • What time is he coming?
  • Who were you talking to?
  • Where did you put my car keys?

To report a wh-question, we use a wh-word at the beginning of the reported clause, e.g.

I asked what time he was coming.
She asked who I was talking to.
He asked me where I had put his car keys.

When the details of the reported question are clear from the context, it is sometimes possible to leave out everything except the wh-word, especially in spoken English, e.g.

John seemed angry with the children, so I asked why.

If the original wh-question consists of what, which or who followed by be + noun complement, the complement is often placed before be in the reported clause, e.g.

'What’s the problem?' I asked what the problem was. (More natural than I asked what was the problem.)

Tense choice and meaning in the reporting clause

Since reported speech is most commonly used to report something that was said or thought in the past, the reporting verb is usually in the past tense, e.g.

On Monday night she told us that she was getting married.


However, there are certain situations in which a reporting verb in the present tense is used, these include:

a) When we are uncertain as to whether the information we are reporting is true, e.g.

Meg tells me you’ve decided to resign.

b) When we want to make a general report about what many people say, e.g.

Everyone says that she’s made the wrong decision.

In certain cases, either a past or a present reporting verb is possible, although a present tense is used when we want to show that something is still true or relevant at the moment we are reporting it, often suggesting that the original words were only spoken a short time ago, compare, e.g.

He says he knows the way, so he should arrive soon.
He said he knows the way, so I didn’t give him directions.

Note that if the reporting verb is in the present tense, the tense in the reported clause remains unchanged, e.g.

'I don’t feel well.' Tom says he doesn’t feel well. 

(Compare: Tom said he didn’t feel well.)

Tense choice in the reported clause

When the situation described in the reported clause is already in the past at the time we are reporting it, we always use a past tense, such as the past simple or the past continuous, in the reported clause.

'I don’t want to go.' Andy said that he didn’t want to go.
'What time are you leaving?' Jackie asked me what time I was leaving.

When the situation described in the reported clause was already in the past when the speaker originally talked about it, then we often use the past perfect in the reported clause, e.g.

'I’ve lost my car keys! She said that she had lost her car keys.

If we want to emphasise that a situation still exists or is still relevant at the time we are using reported speech, we can use a present or present perfect tense in the reported clause, e.g.

We’re going to buy something to eat because Tom said he’s hungry.
Scientists claim that they have found a cure.

If we want to show that we are uncertain as to whether the statement we are reporting is true, then we are more likely to use a past tense in the reported clause, compare:

I think I’ll take an umbrella, the forecast said it’s going to rain.
I wonder if we should take an umbrella, the forecast said that it was going to rain.

In the second example, the use of the past tense in the reported clause suggests that the speaker is more uncertain as to whether what the forecast said is correct.

A summary of the form of tense changes in reported speech

We can summarise the form of tense changes from direct speech to reported speech as follows:

1 . Present tense in direct speech usually becomes past tense in the reported clause:

'I feel sick.' Kate said she felt sick.
'We’re moving house. ' She told me they were moving house.
'It’s David’s fault.' He claimed that it was David’s fault.

Note, however, that we can use the present tense in the reported clause if the reporting verb is in the present tense, compare:

'It’s David fault.' He claims that it’s David’s fault.

And the present tense is sometimes used in a reported clause to show that the situation reported is still relevant at the present time:

'I feel hungry.' Tom said he feels hungry, so let’s go and eat.

2. Present perfect in direct speech usually becomes past perfect in reported clause:

'I’ve finished.' She said she had finished.
'Have you been crying?' I asked her if she had been crying.

Note, however, that we can use the present perfect in the reported clause if the reporting verb is in the present tense, or if we want to show that the situation reported on is still relevant at the present time, e.g.

'I’ve finished.' She says she’s finished.

She said that she’s finished, but I don’t think she has.

3. Past tense in direct speech often becomes past perfect in the reported clause:

'I was sleeping.' She said that she had been sleeping.
'Did you catch the train?' I asked whether he had caught the train.
'She’d seen the film already.' He told me that she’d seen the film already.

Note, however, that a simple past tense in direct speech can also remain unchanged in the reported clause, especially when it refers to a completed action, e.g.

'Did you catch the train?' I asked him whether he caught/had caught the train.

Modal verbs and reported speech

Will often becomes would, e.g.

'You’ll be late.' I told her that she would be late.

Will can sometimes remain unchanged if the situation reported is in the future or still relevant, e.g.

'I’ll come.' She said that she’ll come.

Can often becomes could, e.g.

'I can speak Spanish.' She said that she could speak Spanish.

Can sometimes also remains unchanged, especially if the verb in the reporting clause is in the present tense, e.g.

She says that she can speak Spanish.

May often becomes might, e.g.

'It may be better to wait.' John thought it might be better to wait.

Must, when expressing necessity, can become had to, e.g.

'I must leave at 3pm.' He said he must leave/had to leave at 3pm.

Would, could, should, might, ought to and used to do not change in reported speech, e.g.

'I would love to come.' She said that she would love to come.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • A sentence / question in Past Perfect
    Had you already had lunch? asked the wife
    she asked her husband if he had already had lunch
    b) She said "I had already spoken to him"
    she said (that) she had already spoken to him
    c) " I had searched for it for five minutes "
    the kid said he had been searching for it for five minutes
    I wonder if there is any mistake in the answers thank you!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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