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 SpeechReported 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:

  • They told me that he couldn’t come.
  • The police officer told me to leave.
  • He told me an interesting story.
  • Maria told her what she did last week.
  • The note told us where to wait.

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.

  • He was complaining that I hardly ever visit him anymore.
  • They warned me to stay away.
  • He insisted that I should give him a lift to the station.

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

  • question word + infinitive clause – He described how to get to his house.
  • that + a clause (that may be optional) – They all denied (that) any one of them had stolen the money.
  • infinitive clause – She asked me to leave the building.
  • preposition + -ing clause – He insisted on seeing the evidence for himself.
  • question word + a clause – Could you please explain howthe accident happened?
  • -ing clause – A friend of mine recommended going to see this film.

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 tenseReported tenseExample
Simple PresentSimple Past“We enjoy fishing” – They said they enjoyed fishing
Simple PastPast Perfect“He saw it” – She said he had seen it
Present PerfectPast Perfect“She’s gone” – You said she had gone
Present ContinuousPast Continuous“I’m leaving” – You said you were leaving
Past ContinuousPast Perfect Continuous“He was reading” – He said he had been reading
cancould“I can sing” – She said she could sing
maymight“We may stay” – They said they might stay
musthad to“I must go” – He said he had to go
willwould“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.

todaythat day/then
tomorrowthe next/following day
yesterdaythe day before
this weekthat week
next monththe following month

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
Ihe/sheHe said, “I am late” – He said he was late.
youhe/she/they“Will you help me?” – She asked if he would help her.
he/she/ithe/she/itShe said, “He hit me” – She said he had hit her.
wetheyI said, “We are lost” – He said they were lost.
theytheyThey said, “We are hungry” – They said they were hungry.
usthemJohn said, “She gave us presents” – John said she had given them presents.
ourtheirHe said, “Our jobs are at risk” – He said their jobs were at risk.
his/hers/itshis/hers/itsShe 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:

  • She said, “She took my purse” – might become: Mary said that Janet had taken her purse.