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Indirect/Reported Speech in English Grammar

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Passing on information…

We use Indirect Speech (sometimes called Reported Speech) to repeat and report what someone has said earlier. This is in comparison with Direct Speech‏‎ which is what the person actually says.

“Live long and prosper,” said Spock.

This is direct speech; these are the actual words spoken. Contrast this with indirect speech which is reporting what the person said at a later date:

Spock said we should live long and prosper.

Note also that while direct speech is in inverted commas, indirect speech does not use them.

How to turn Direct to Indirect Speech

There are a set of basic rules which we can use to turn direct speech into indirect speech. Let’s start with a simple statement.

“We go out every Thursday night.”

To report this and turn it into indirect speech we use this pattern:

{person} + {reporting verb} + [that] + {past statement}

He + said + [that] + they went out every Thursday night.

There are several important points to note here. Firstly we use a reporting verb which reflects what was said and how it was said. The most common is simply, said, but we can use others as well: agree, answer, be sure, explain, explain, interrupt, know, mention, say, tell, think, write…

He explained that they went out every Thursday night.

He wrote that they went out every Thursday night.

He mentioned that they went out every Thursday night.

The use of that is often optional:

He said that they went out every Thursday night.

He said they went out every Thursday night.

Finally, although we normally mention the person making the original statement at the beginning, we can also put it at the end as well:

He said they went out every Thursday night.

They went out every Thursday night, he said.

Verb Changes

Generally speaking, the verb used in the direct speech drops back one tense when we convert it to indirect speech. This is when we use a reporting verb in the past tense which is very common; what happens is that we are reporting something which was said in the past so we use a past tense reporting verb such as, said.

When this happens the main verb of the original direct speech drops back a tense:

will > would

“I will go tomorrow.”

He said he would go tomorrow.

present > past

“I love ice cream.”

He said he loved ice cream.

“I am baking a cake.”

He said he was baking a cake.

past > past perfect

“I went on holiday.”

She said she had been on holiday.

“I was working all night.”

She said she had been working all night.

Exceptions

There are a few exceptions to this though. If the reporting verb is in the present tense, the main verb does not change:

“I love you.”

He says he loves you.

“I was working all night.”

She says that she was working all night.

Modal verbs – would, could, should, might & ought to – don’t change, either:

“I might go.”

She said she might go.

Finally, if the original statement is still likely to be true, we can optionally keep it in the same tense. Suppose we you ask a friend what they are doing and they reply:

“I am watching the game on television.”

Thirty seconds later you report this to another friend and say:

He said he is watching the game on television.

The tense of the main verb doesn’t change because the original statement is still true, in other words.

Reporting Questions

To form many questions we can invert the subject and verb:

He is here.”

   “Is he here?”

When we report questions however we do not invert them.

She asked if he was here.

Note that the main verb drops back one tense from is to was.

We can also use a different group of reporting verbs for questions: ask, inquire, want to know, wonder.

She asked if he was here.

She wanted to know if he was here.

With questions looking for a yes/no answer, we can use if or whether in reported speech:

“Do you want a cup of coffee?”

He asked if you wanted a cup of coffee.

“Are you going to the match?”

She asked whether you were going to the match.

Word Changes

Pronouns and some other words change when we convert from direct to indirect speech. Some are shown in the table below:

Direct Speech Indirect Speech Example
I he/she/it I am here,” she said. She said she was there.
my his/her “It is my house,” he said. He said it was his house.
this/these that/those This is mine,” she said She said that was hers.
tomorrow the next day “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said. He said he would see me the next day.

Again it isn’t always necessary to change these. If in this final example the direct statement was reported on the same day it was made it would be perfectly acceptable to say:

He said he would see me tomorrow.

It depends on timing and context.

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