An article by Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on approaches to teaching reported speech.
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.
‘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.
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.
This is followed by a reported clause showing someone’s original statement, question or thought, e.g.
… (that) she was getting married on Saturday.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With some reporting verbs, it is possible to choose whether or not to mention the hearer, e.g
With certain reporting verbs, if we decide to mention the hearer, we must do so with a prepositional phrase, e.g.
He agreed (with Jenny) that it would have been better to wait.
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:
'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.
To report a yes/no question, we use whether or if in the reported clause, e.g.
If is generally used when the speaker has suggested one possibility that might be true, e.g.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
b) When we want to make a general report about what many people say, e.g.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
Modal verbs and reported speech
Will often becomes would, e.g.
Will can sometimes remain unchanged if the situation reported is in the future or still relevant, e.g.
Can often becomes could, e.g.
Can sometimes also remains unchanged, especially if the verb in the reporting clause is in the present tense, e.g.
May often becomes might, e.g.
Must, when expressing necessity, can become had to, e.g.
Would, could, should, might, ought to and used to do not change in reported speech, e.g.
Verbs and tenses
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