We often want to tell someone what another person has said to us. In most cases we do not report the exact words that we hear. Instead we make some changes so that what we say sounds more natural. This is called reported speech (or indirect speech). Here are some examples:
- Miho told me that she's returning to Japan next year.
- He said that you're angry with me.
- The teacher told me to go to the office.
- She asked if you were feeling better.
- She wanted to know if I had ever ridden a horse.*
* In writing, particularly in fiction writing, it is common to use direct speech: She asked me: "Have you ever ridden a horse?" Please note, however, that direct speech is most unusual in spoken language.
Reported speech can also include thoughts or words that are the reporter's summary of what was said. Here are some examples:
- I wonder if she can come to my party.
- I don't know why he shouted at me.
- Do you think that she likes me?
- She begged me not to tell the teacher.
- She apologized for being late.
- John realized that he had left his violin on the bus.*
- She persuaded me to tell her my secret.**
* In the last sentence, it may be that John never said anything like: "I realized that I'd left my violin on the bus." The reporter, in relating what John told him, is summarizing what happened to John in the reporter's own words. This is a common aspect of reported speech. (The same applies to sentence example **.)
As noted above when we report words or thoughts we need to make some changes to make what we say sound natural. Some of these changes may be as easy as changing pronouns or correcting time references:
- "I can't come to your party." - She said she can't come to my party.
- "My mother called me today." - He said his mother called that day.
In many cases more extensive changes are needed to produce correct and natural-sounding reported speech, particularly when reporting questions or commands. Here are some examples:
- "Do you have children?" - He asked me if I have children.
- "Did you go to the party?" - She wanted to know if I went to the party.
- "What's the time?" - She asked me what the time was.
- "Please speak more slowly!" - She requested that I speak more slowly.
- "Do not open that box!" - She told me not to open the box.
The main problem for the learner of English is to decide which tense is needed for the verb(s) in what is reported. Generally, English speakers do not change the tense if what is said is still true or has not happened yet, and they believe the speaker. For example:
- "I don't feel very well." - She said she doesn't feel very well. (at the time of my reporting this fact - shortly after hearing it - I know that it is still true)
- "I'm returning to Japan in August." - He said he's returning to Japan in August. (I am reporting this fact in April and I have no reason to disbelieve him)
- "I hate doing grammar exercises!" - She told me that she hates doing grammar exercises. (she told me this a few months ago but I'm sure that it is still true)
There are often cases, however, in which what was said is no longer true, or the reporter does not believe/trust the speaker, or the reporter wants to be neutral (i.e. convey neither belief, nor disbelief in what the speaker said). There are also cases when what was said is still true but the reporter is not interested in conveying any opinion about truth. He or she is more focussed on reporting a past conversation. In all such cases it is usual to shift the tense from present (simple, continuous or perfect) to past (simple, continuous or perfect). It is also usual to shift the tense back in reporting questions in the present perfect. Here are some examples**:
- "I don't feel very well." - She said she didn't feel very well. (she told me this last week and I know she is better now)
- "I'm returning to Japan in August." - He said he was returning to Japan in August. (I am reporting this fact in April, but I don't trust him as he has already told me 3 times he was leaving, and each time it turned out to be incorrect)
- "I hate doing grammar exercises!" - She told me that she hated doing grammar exercises. (she told me this a few months ago but now that she can do them on the internet I know that she has changed her mind)
- "I'll help you move house." - He told me that he would help me move house. (I'm neutral on this: I don't want to imply that I think he will keep his promise; and I don't want to imply that I don't think he will keep his promise)
- "I had an accident on the way to work." - He told me he'd had an accident on the way to work. (the speaker was talking about an accident some time ago - the reporter has shifted the tense from present to past perfect*)
- "Have you done your homework?" - My mother asked if I had done my homework. (she asked me just now and I haven't done my homework - but it is usual to shift the tense when reporting questions in the present perfect)
- "I'm from London." - I told him that I was from London. (it is clearly still true that I am from London, but when reporting what I said I am not interested in emphasing this fact; my concern is to report a conversation that took place in the past and so I use past tense)
* It is common not to shift from past simple to past perfect in reported speech (unless this causes confusion about the sequence in which events happened). So sentences such as: He told me he had an accident on the way to work or She said she didn't enjoy the party ("I didn't enjoy the party.") are perfectly correct.
** Click for a list of formal tense shift rules (External website).
Note: This is a complex aspect of English grammar. Learners who wish to know more are advised to consult a good reference work, such as Collins Cobuild English Grammar, or Swan's Practical English Usage.
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