Number one for English language teachers

Reported speech 2 – article

Type: Reference material

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

Introduction

Whenever we use reported speech, we have to take into account how circumstances have changed since the speaker originally spoke the words. For instance, we may now be reporting what was said from the point of view of a different time or place, or the person reporting the speech may be different to the original speaker. This will affect the choice of pronouns or adverbials of time and place in reporting/reported clauses.

Referring to people

If we were making an arrangement to meet a friend, we might say something like:

'I’ll meet you in the park at 3 o’clock.'

If we then later report what we have said to another friend, we might say something like:

I said that I would meet her in the park at 3 o’clock.

Notice how you in the original statement becomes her in the reported clause.
If somebody else was reporting what we said to another friend, they might say:

She said that she would meet her in the park at 3 o’clock.

Here, I has become she in the reporting clause, and you has become her in the reported clause. If we do not meet our first friend in the park as planned, and she speaks to us about this later in the day, she might say:

You said you would meet me in the park at 3 o’clock.

Here, I has become you in the reporting clause, and you has become me in the reported clause.

The examples illustrate that pronouns always change according to the point of view of the person using the reported speech. The same is true of possessive pronouns. For instance, a question such as:

'Is she your sister?'

Could be reported with any one of the following, depending on the point of view of the speaker or listener, e.g.

  • She asked if I was her sister.
  • He asked if she was his sister.
  • She asked if you were my sister.
  • I asked if she was her sister.

Referring to places

Sometimes words which relate to place or position need to be changed in a reported clause. For instance, if someone were to say to us:

'I’ll come to your place at 11:30.'

then if we were at home we might report this as:

She said that she would come here at 11:30.

In the reported clause your place has been changed to here.

If someone is in a restaurant and says:

'I eat here every Saturday.'

This statement might be reported by someone else who is not in the restaurant as:

He says that he eats there every Saturday.

In this case, here has been changed to there in the reported clause.

Referring to time

Adverbials of time such as today, yesterday, tomorrow, etc. often need to be changed in reported speech. For instance, someone might say to you:

'I’ll meet you in the park tomorrow afternoon.'

If you were reporting this to someone else the day after, you might say:

He said he would meet me in the park this afternoon.

In this case, tomorrow afternoon has changed to this afternoon in the reported clause.

If someone says:

'I saw her yesterday.'

And we were reporting this to someone else a few days after it was said, then we might say:

He said that he had seen her the previous day.

Here, yesterday has changed to the previous day in the reported clause.

Here are some time adverbials and examples of what they often change to in reported speech. Note that the choice of time adverbial always depends on the particular situation that surrounds the reported speech.

  • yesterday the previous day/the day before/on Saturday, etc.
  • today yesterday/that day/on Saturday, etc.
  • tomorrow the next day/the following day/on Saturday, etc.
  • this week that week/last week
  • next year the year after/the following year/in 2006, etc.
  • last month the month before/the previous month/in April, etc. 

Negatives in reporting

If we want to report what someone did not say or think, then the verb in the reporting clause must be made negative, e.g.

You didn’t tell me that you were getting married.
She didn’t ask me where I was going.

If we want to report something that was said but which was in the negative when the speaker originally used it, then the verb in the reported clause must be negative, e.g.

'I don’t want to come.' = She said that she didn’t want to come.

However, with the common reporting verb think, in order to report a sentence which was negative when the speaker originally used it, the reporting verb is usually made negative, rather than the verb in the reported clause, e.g.

'It’s not a good idea.' = He didn’t think it was a good idea.

(More natural than He thought it wasn’t a good idea.)
Other common reporting verbs that behave in this way include believe, expect, and feel, e.g.

'He won’t win.' = She didn’t expect him to win. (More natural than She expected (that) he wouldn’t win.)

Passives in reporting

Reporting verbs such as tell and inform often occur in passive report structures. When they are used in the passive, the hearer of the original statement becomes the subject of the sentence in reported speech, e.g.

'There are no seats available.' = We were told/informed that there were no seats available.

Passive reporting verbs are often used when it is not important to identify the speaker of the original sentence, focusing on the hearer only, e.g.

He has been asked to give a talk.

In a similar way, reporting verbs such as say and believe are sometimes used in the passive in order to avoid specifying whose opinion or statement is being reported. This is a more formal use, with it as the subject and a that-clause, e.g.

It is said that smoking causes cancer.
It is believed that the two incidents are linked.

These structures are often used to express an opinion which is generally held. An alternative passive structure with a to-infinitive is therefore sometimes used to make the subject of the reported clause become the main topic of the sentence, e.g.

Smoking is said to cause cancer.
The two incidents are believed to be linked.

Reporting orders and requests

If someone says something which orders or requests someone to do something, this can be reported with verbs such as tell and ask, followed by an object and a to-infinitive, e.g.

'Please sit down.' = She told us to sit down.
'Pass me the salt, would you?' = He asked me to pass him the salt.

Other verbs that occur in this pattern include order, command, forbid, instruct, beg and urge, e.g.

'Please don’t leave me!' = She begged him not to leave her.

Some of these reporting verbs are often used in the passive, with the original hearer (the object of the reporting clause in the examples above) becoming the subject of the reporting clause, e.g.

'You must not leave the room.' = He was forbidden to leave the room.
'Sit down everyone.' = We were instructed to sit down.

When reporting a direct order, it is also possible to use verbs such as must or have to in the reported clause, e.g.

'Sit down!' = She told us (that) we had to sit down.

The reporting verb ask can be used with or without an object before the to-infinitive clause, but note the difference in meaning, e.g.

He asked to leave early. = He wanted to leave early

He asked him to leave early. = He wanted someone else to leave early

The reporting verb demand is always followed directly by a to-infinitive, e.g.

'Where have you been?' = She demanded to know where I had been.

It can also occur with a that-clause, e.g.

'Tell me the truth!' = She demanded that I should tell her the truth.

Use of the that-clause in such contexts is much more formal. It implies a suggestion about something that the hearer needs to do or that would be desirable for them to do. Often, the modal should is left out, i.e.

She demanded that I tell her the truth.

This use of the base form of a verb (tell) without a modal (should), is often referred to as the subjunctive.

Reporting suggestions

If someone makes a suggestion about what they or someone else could do, this can be reported with verbs such as advise, propose, recommend and suggest, followed by an -ing clause, e.g.

'You should eat in the hotel restaurant.' = He suggested eating in the hotel restaurant.

'It would be useful to read the last chapter.' = The teacher recommended reading the last chapter.
These verbs can also be followed by that-clause, e.g.

He suggested that we ate in the hotel restaurant.

In more formal contexts, a subjunctive form is sometimes used, e.g.

He suggested that we (should) eat in the hotel restaurant.

The verb advise can alternatively be followed by an object plus to-infinitive clause, e.g.

'I think you should see a doctor.' = He advised me to see a doctor.

Reporting offers and intentions

The reporting verb promise can be followed either directly by a to-infinitive, or by a that-clause, to report what someone offered or intended to do, e.g.


'I’ll look after the kids.' = She promised to look after the kids.
She promised that she would look after the kids.

Note that with a that-clause, the person who does the promising and the person referred to in the reported clause may be different, e.g.

'John will look after the kids,' Andy promised. = He promised that he would look after the kids.

The verbs offer and volunteer are always followed directly by a to-infinitive clause, e.g.

'I’ll look after the kids.' = Jackie offered/volunteered to look after the kids.

The verbs intend and want can be used to report what someone planned or wanted to do. They are also always followed directly by a to-infinitive clause, e.g.

'I’ve decided to go jogging every morning.' = She intended to go jogging every morning.
'We want to come too!' = The children wanted to come with us.

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