Easy English: Reported Speech

What is reported speech?

Reported speech is how we relay something that has already been said or written, either by ourselves or by someone else.

For example, imagine that your friend said, “I am going to the dentist tomorrow.” Now, if we want to share what they said with someone else, we need to use reported speech. This can be done in two different ways: direct speech and indirect speech.

Direct speech

Direct speech copies the exact words as they were spoken. In writing, we represent quotes like this by placing quotation marks around them:

  • “I am going to the dentist tomorrow,” my friend told me.
  • “My teacher hates me,” the student muttered.
  • “It isn’t my fault!” he explained.

Indirect/reported speech

Indirect (or reported) speech allows us to relay a statement or question without using the exact words that were spoken. There are two main points to remember: (1) indirect speech is usually used to comment on something that happened in the past, so the new wording must be adjusted appropriately; and (2), since we aren’t using an exact quote, we don’t use quotation marks around the indirect speech.

Let’s take the direct-speech examples above and change them into indirect/reported speech:

  • My friend told me that she was going to the dentist the next day.
  • The student muttered that their teacher hates them.
  • He explained that it wasn’t his fault.

As you can see, there are quite a few changes that were made to the original wording. This can be a bit confusing for English learners, so let’s break down what is happening to the different parts of the sentence.

In general, if the reporting verb is in the past tense (such as “told,” “muttered,” or “explained” in the examples above), then the following words will likely need to change:

A) Verb tenses and forms.
B) Pronouns.
C) Adverbs of time and place.

A) Verb tenses and forms in indirect/reported speech

1) Present tense changes to past tense:

Speech that uses present simple tense becomes past simple tense in reported speech. Similarly, present continuous tense becomes past continuous tense.

  • Direct speech (present simple): “I don’t trust you,” he said.
  • Indirect speech (past simple): He said that he didn’t trust me.
  • Direct speech (present continuous): “We are relaxing at home,” she said.
  • Indirect speech (past continuous): She told me that they were relaxing at home.

2) Present perfect tense changes to past perfect tense:

Present perfect simple tense changes to past perfect simple tense in reported speech. Similarly, present perfect continuous tense changes to past perfect continuous tense.

  • Direct speech (present perfect simple): “I have lost my keys,” the man said.
  • Indirect speech (past perfect simple): The man said that he had lost his keys.
  • Direct speech (present perfect continuous): “We have been working all day,” she said.
  • Indirect speech (past perfect continuous): She said that they had been working all day.

3) Past simple tense changes to past perfect tense:

Past simple tense becomes past perfect simple tense, and past continuous tense changes to past perfect continuous tense.

  • Direct speech (past simple): “John went home early,” I thought.
  • Indirect speech (past perfect): I thought that John had gone home early.
  • Direct speech (past continuous): “She was still deciding on her future,” said Paul.
  • Indirect speech (past perfect continuous): Paul said that she had still been deciding on her future.

4) “Will” changes to the conditional tense:

“Will” changes to the conditional tense in reported speech.

  • Direct speech (“will”): “I will arrive at 8 o’clock,” he said.
  • Indirect speech (conditional): He said that he would arrive at 8 o’clock.

When do verb forms stay the same?

There are certain cases where the form of a verb stays the same in both the direct and indirect versions. These rules are important to know, so let’s take a look at each one.

1) If the reporting verb is in the present tense:

  • Direct speech: “I love this outfit,” says Kim.
  • Indirect speech: Kim says that she loves this outfit.

2) If the issue is still true in the present:

  • Direct speech: “Coronavirus is a global pandemic,” said the president.
  • Indirect speech: The president said that coronavirus is a global pandemic.

3) In “if” clauses:

  • Direct speech: “If I stayed out late, my mom would be angry,” said Tara.
  • Indirect speech: Tara said that if she stayed out late, her mom would be angry.

4) In “time” clauses:

  • Direct speech: “I will go home when the sun sets,” said Lucy.
  • Indirect speech: Lucy said that she will go home when the sun sets.

5) After phrases such as “would rather,” “had better,” “wish,” and “it is time”:

  • Direct speech: “I would rather stay at home,” said Kara.
  • Indirect speech: Kara said that she would rather stay at home.
  • Direct speech: “I wish I could join you,” said James.
  • Indirect speech: James said that he wished he could join me.
  • Direct speech: “It is time we went home,” said my parents.
  • Indirect speech: My parents said that it was time we went home.

6) When modal verbs such as “would,” “could,” “should,” “might,” “ought to,” and “used to” are used:

  • Direct speech: “I would always warm up before training,” said Matt.
  • Indirect speech: Matt said that he would always warm up before training.
  • Direct speech: “I used to wake up much earlier,” said Blake.
  • Indirect speech: Blake said that she used to wake up much earlier.

B) Pronouns in indirect/reported speech

Pronouns are usually changed in indirect speech to match with the adjusted wording:

  • Direct speech: “I am trying my best,” said Eric.
  • Indirect speech: Eric said that he was trying his best.
  • Direct speech: “I borrowed your book,” said Sam.
  • Indirect speech: Sam said that he borrowed my book.

Be mindful that pronouns can sometimes make the meaning of a sentence ambiguous. In such cases, we need to use a noun instead of the pronoun to keep the meaning clear:

  • Direct speech: “She ate all the cookies,” said Emily.
  • Indirect speech: Emily said that she ate all the cookies.

In the indirect-speech example above, the pronoun “she” makes it seem like Emily ate all the cookies herself. However, Emily is actually talking about someone else. To avoid this confusion, we need to use a more specific noun instead of the pronoun (“she”):

  • Indirect speech (revised): Emily said that the girl ate all the cookies.

C) Adverbs of time and place

Adverbs of time and place usually need to be changed in order to match the context of the new sentence. Here are some common time phrases and how they can change:

  • “Today” changes to “that day.”
  • “Tomorrow” changes to “the next day” or “the following day.”
  • “The day after tomorrow” changes to “in two days’ time.”
  • “Yesterday” changes to “the day before.”
  • “The day before yesterday” changes to “two days before.”
  • “Next week/month” changes to “the following week/month.”
  • “Last week/month” changes to “the previous week/month.”
  • “A year ago” changes to “a year before” or “the previous year.”

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Direct speech: “She will be arriving the day after tomorrow,” said Bill.
  • Indirect speech: Bill said that she would be arriving in two days’ time.
  • Direct speech: “John left yesterday,” said Mary.
  • Indirect speech: Mary said that John had left the day before.

However, if a statement or question is made and reported at the same time, then the time expressions can remain the same in the indirect version:

  • Direct speech: “I will write the report tomorrow,” said Lisa today.
  • Indirect speech: Lisa said today that she would write the report tomorrow.

If the statement or question is reported later than it was originally made, the time expressions are different in the indirect speech in order to match the new context:

  • Direct speech (said in March): “I’m leaving next month,” said Mr. Roberts.
  • Indirect speech (said in April): Mr. Roberts said that he’s leaving this month.

Reported questions

In reported speech, questions are turned into statements. This means that we no longer use a question mark:

  • Direct speech: “Have you seen my wallet?” asked Tom
  • Indirect speech: Tom asked if I had seen his wallet.
  • Direct speech: “What time is the delivery coming?” my friend asked me.
  • Indirect speech: My friend asked me what time the delivery was coming.

Reported commands, requests, and advice

Positive commands, requests, and advice usually use the following pattern: verb–object–infinitive. Also note that unlike in direct speech, the person who is addressed must be mentioned in the indirect-speech version:

  • Direct speech: “Go away!”
  • Indirect speech: The person told me to go away.
  • Direct speech: “Please wash your hands,” said the doctor.
  • Indirect speech: The doctor told me to please wash my hands.

Negative commands, requests, and advice follow a slightly different pattern: verb–object–not–infinitive:

  • Direct speech: “Don’t eat any food before the operation.”
  • Indirect speech: The doctor told me not to eat any food before the operation.
  • Direct speech: “Don’t drive too fast,” my mom told me.
  • Indirect speech: My mom told me not to drive too fast.

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5 thoughts on “Easy English: Reported Speech

  1. Avatar
    Calvin M. says:

    I didn’t know there were so many rules with indirect speech. I thought I knew how to use it already, but all the different tenses have their own rules….

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