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Guide to English Grammar for international learners & teachers of English



Reported speech

Many grammar books and teaching course books resort to tables of the following kind to show the differences between what is called direct and reported speech and how the two are connected.

Direct Speech

Reported Speech

"I'm tired," John said.

John said he was tired.

My mother said, "I'll be late".

My mother said she would be late.

He said, "I can't ride a bike."

He said he couldn't ride a bike.

The most widely used verbs in reported speech that introduce what someone said are say and tell. Choosing which one to use is a question of whether the person who was originally addressed is important or not, since with say this person is very rarely introduced into the conversation. The verb tell, requires the person addressed to be explicit:

There are, of course, many other reporting verbs that can be used to introduce what someone said or wrote. Some of these verbs do not convey anything of the attitude of the reporter towards what was said, while others do. Examples of the first kind are reply, answer, explain, mention, where the reporter is merely giving information.

Other verbs show the attitude and opinion of the speaker to the words that s/he is reporting; for example, insist, warn, threaten, promise, complain, claim, demand and so on.

The type of grammatical construction that follows reporting verbs depends on the verb itself. There is a choice from the six following basic types:

You may already have noticed while reading the examples above that the words of the original text (spoken or written) usually have to be altered when they are being reported. Although there are no hard and fast rules for transforming the original text into reported speech, some broad general statements can be made to explain what happens to verb tenses in such cases. It needs to be stressed that these 'rules' are only guidelines and indicate some of the characteristic changes that native speakers might choose while relating a past incident. Below you will find some of the more common possible verb changes, with examples of each; however, the list is not exhaustive.

Original tense

Reported tense

Example

Simple Present

Simple Past

"We enjoy fishing" - They said they enjoyed fishing

Simple Past

Past Perfect

"He saw it" - She said he had seen it

Present Perfect

Past Perfect

"She's gone" - You said she had gone

Present Continuous

Past Continuous

"I'm leaving" - You said you were leaving

Past Continuous

Past Perfect Continuous

"He was reading" - He said he had been reading

can

could

"I can sing" - She said she could sing

may

might

"We may stay" - They said they might stay

must

had to

"I must go" - He said he had to go

will

would

"I'll buy them" - You said you would buy them

Of course, any verb that is already in one of the Past Perfect tenses cannot change any further, but there are several other modal auxiliaries that usually do not change either; these are: could, might, ought to, should and would.

"It might rain tomorrow." - He said it might rain tomorrow (or today).

As you can see from the example above, the word tomorrow could be replaced by today. There are a limited number of words and phrases connected with time and place that may need to be changed in order for the reported message to make sense. Once more, these are not unbreakable rules, but a range of possibilities that need to be considered when dealing with reported speech. Some of these words and phrases are given in the lists below - you may be able to think of more.

Place

come

go

bring

take

this

that

these

those

here

there

Time

today

that day/then

tomorrow

the next/following day

yesterday

the day before

this week

that week

next month

the following month

now

then

When reporting someone's words, we also need to think about the pronouns that have been used and whether it is necessary to change them. Until this point we have been discussing how we report someone's speech, but this is a little misleading since we also frequently report our own and other people's thoughts and very often the same rule-of-thumb guidelines that are given above need to be applied. Typically, first-person and second-person expressions are converted to third-prson; third-person expressions typically do not need to change the pronoun.

Pronouns in reported speech

I

he/she

He said, "I am late" - He said he was late.

you

he/she/they

"Will you help me?" - She asked if he would help her.

he/she/it

he/she/it

She said, "He hit me" - She said he had hit her.

we

they

I said, "We are lost" - He said they were lost.

they

they

They said, "We are hungry" - They said they were hungry.

us

them

John said, "She gave us presents" - John said she had given them presents.

our

their

He said, "Our jobs are at risk" - He said their jobs were at risk.

his/hers/its

his/hers/its

She said, "It's hers" - She said that it was hers.

Note that in cases such as the last example above where the replacement of pronouns might lead to ambiguity, the sentence may need further adjustment. For example:

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