icon  icon icon

Reported speech

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:

* 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:

* 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:

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:

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:

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**:

* 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.

Do a quiz on this grammar topic.


Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)