Reported Speech in English Grammar

Introduction

In English grammar, we use reported speech to say what another person has said. We can use their exact words with quotation marks, this is known as direct speech, or we can use indirect speech. In indirect speech, we change the tense and pronouns to show that some time has passed. Indirect speech is often introduced by a reporting verb or phrase such as ones below.

Example:
He says/said …
She explains/explained …
She tells/told me …
He asks/asked …

Learn the rules for writing indirect speech in English with Lingolia’s simple explanation. In the exercises, you can test your grammar skills.

Example

Mandy is sitting in the café where James works. He tells her, “I work in this café almost every day. But yesterday I saw a famous TV presenter here for the first time. She was eating an ice-cream at the table where you are sitting now.” Bild 1
Bild 2 A week later, Mandy is speaking to a friend on the phone, “I saw James at the café last week. He said that he worked in that café almost every day, but that the day before he had seen a famous TV presenter there for the first time. She had been eating an ice-cream at the table where I was sitting at that moment.”
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Direct Speech

When turning direct speech into indirect speech, we need to pay attention to the following points:

    • changing the pronouns
      Example:
      He said, “I saw a famous TV presenter.”
      He said (that) he had seen a famous TV presenter.
    • changing the information about time and place (see the table at the end of this page)
      Example:
      He said, “I saw a famous TV presenter here yesterday.”
      He said (that) he had seen a famous TV presenter there the day before.
    • changing the tense (backshift)
      Example:
      He said, “She was eating an ice-cream at the table where you are sitting.”
      He said (that) she had been eating an ice-cream at the table where I was sitting.

Changing the Tense (backshift)

If the introductory clause is in the simple past (e.g. He said), the tense has to be set back by one degree (see the table). The term for this in English is backshift.

Example:
He said, “I work every day.”
He said that he worked every day.
He said, “I saw a TV presenter.”
He said that he had seen a TV presenter.
He said, “She was sitting where you are sitting.”
He said that she had been sitting where I was sitting.
direct speechindirect speech
simple present simple past
present progressive past progressive
simple past past perfect simple
present perfect simple
past perfect simple
past progressive past perfect progressive
present perfect progressive
past perfect progressive
future (going to) was / were going to
future (will) conditional (would)
conditional (would)

The verbs could, should, would, might, must, needn’t, ought to, used to normally do not change.

Example:
He said, “I could have asked her for an autograph.” – He said that he could have asked her for an autograph.

No Change of Tenses

If the introductory clause is in the simple present, however (e.g. He says), then the tense remains unchanged, because the introductory clause already indicates that the statement is being immediately repeated (and not at a later point in time).

Example:
He says, “I saw a TV presenter.”
He says that he saw a TV presenter.

In some cases, however, we have to change the verb form.

Example:
He says, “I work every day.”
He says that he works every day.
He says, “She was sitting where you are sitting.”
He says that she was sitting where I am sitting.

Question Sentences

When turning questions into indirect speech, we have to pay attention to the following points:

  • As in a declarative sentence, we have to change the pronouns, the time and place information, and set the tense back (backshift).
  • Instead of that, we use a question word. If there is no question word, we use whether/if instead.
    Example:
    She asked him, “How often do you work?”
    → She asked him how often he worked.
    He asked me, “Do you know any famous people?”
    → He asked me if/whether I knew any famous people.
  • We put the subject before the verb in question sentences. (The subject goes after the auxiliary verb in normal questions.)
    Example:
    I asked him, “Have you met any famous people before?”
    → I asked him if/whether he had met any famous people before.
  • We don’t use the auxiliary verb do for questions in indirect speech. Therefore, we sometimes have to conjugate the main verb (for third person singular or in the simple past).
    Example:
    I asked him, “What do you want to tell me?”
    → I asked him what he wanted to tell me.
  • We put the verb directly after who or what in subject questions.
    Example:
    I asked him, “Who is sitting here?”
    → I asked him who was sitting there.

To note

We don’t just use indirect questions to report what another person has asked. We also use them to ask questions in a very polite manner.

Example:
Where is the train station?
→ Could you tell me where the train station is?
Can you help me?
→ I wonder if you can help me.

Demands/Requests

When turning demands and requests into indirect speech, we only need to change the pronouns and the time and place information. We don’t have to pay attention to the tenses – we simply use to + the basic form of the verb.

Example:
He said, “Watch the TV presenter’s show tonight.”
He told me to watch the TV presenter’s show that evening.

If it is a negative demand, then in indirect speech we use not to + the basic form of the verb.

Example:
He said, “Don’t watch the TV presenter’s show tonight.”
He told me not to watch the TV presenter’s show that evening.

Expressions with who/what/how + infinitive

When we talk about what someone should or can do in reported speech, we can leave out the subject and the modal verb. Instead we use a who/what/where/how + infinitive.

Example:
Just tell me when I should stop.
→ Just tell me when to stop.
She doesn’t know what she should do.
→ She doesn’t know what to do.
I asked him how I could get to the post office.
→ I asked him how to get to the post office.

Typical Changes of Time and Place

direct speechindirect speech
today that day
now then
at that moment/time
yesterday the day before
… days ago … days before
last week the week before
next year the following year
tomorrow the next day
the following day
here there
this that
these those

Say or Tell?

The words say and tell are not interchangeable.
say = say something
tell = say something to someone

Example:
He said (that) he had seen a TV presenter.
He told me (that) he had seen a TV presenter.