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Reported Speech

When an English speaker wants to report what someone else has said, then the speaker may choose to either directly quote the person:

Maria said, "I will go home in the summer,"

use indirect speech (also referred to as reported speech):

Maria said that she would go home in the summer.

In addition to the punctuation differences between the two reports, we see differences in the structure as well. The purpose of this lesson is to examine what English speakers do to change a quoted speech to reported speech.

One of the reasons why you may find reported speech complicated is that native speakers do not always follow the grammatical rules for producing reported speech. This may confuse you, but do not get frustrated. Follow the grammar-book rules outlined in this lesson and you will have no trouble changing direct speech to reported speech and reported speech to direct speech.

An Overview

Languages have two forms of speech: direct and indirect. Direct speech is what one is actually saying, and indirect speech is one saying what another has said. The latter is referred to as reported speech. To report means to say what we saw or heard – to retell what someone has already said, or what we have already experienced. Communication would have been very difficult if we didn't have the reported speech form. Can you imagine yourself talking in quotes all the time?

Let us look at this for a moment. Assume that you are watching the President of the Unites States giving a speech on television and saying, "We are in a better position today than we were four years ago." Later, you want to tell a friend what you heard. How would you do that? Well, think for a moment, you would be telling your friend what the president had already said, right? You would be reporting to your friend what you heard, ["We are in a better position today than we were four years ago"] which are not your words, they are the president's words—right? In this case, you would have to use the reported speech form. You would then say, the president said that we were in a better position today than we had been four years ago. Notice the difference in verb form and tense. The president's exact words were, "We are in a better position today than we were four years ago." Your exact words would be, we were better today than we had been four years ago. So, "we are" changed to "we were," and "we were" changed to "we had been." "We are" is the present tense and is changed to "we were" which is past tense. "We were" is past tense and is changed to "we had been" which is past perfect tense.

It is then safe to say that in reported speech we elevate the verb one step. This means that the present changes to past and the past changes to past perfect. Now, we know the basic rule. Once again, the main rule in reported speech is to elevate the verb one tense higher.

Present ______________ to _____________________past
Past _________________to ____________________ past perfect

Remember that

Forms of Reported Speech

There are several forms of reported speech depending on the structure of the quoted speech. We will address these forms individually. However, there are some general rules that you will need to observe when reporting what someone said.

  1. In reported speech, you must delete quotes.
  2. You must identify all the verbs and their tenses between the quotes.
  3. You need to move each verb tense one tense higher, if possible; which means:
    Present to past
    Past to past perfect
    Will to would
    Must to had to
  4. You must not use question form in reported speech.
  5. You must use the same questions words used in the direct speech.
  6. You must use "if" or "whether" in the case of "yes or no" questions.

Reported speech and verb forms

Consider the following

from quoted speech to reported speech

  1. He said, "I work hard."
    He said that he worked hard.
  2. He said, "I am working hard."
    He said that he was working hard.
  3. He said, "I have worked hard."
    He said that he had worked hard.
  4. He said, "I worked hard."
    He said that he had worked hard.
  5. He said, "I am going to work hard."
    He said that he was going to work hard.
  6. He said, "I will work hard."
    He said that he would work hard.
  7. He said, "I can work hard."
    He said that he could work hard.
  8. He said, "I may work hard."
    He said that he might work hard.
  9. He said, "I have to work hard."
    He said that he had to work hard.
  10. He said, "I must work hard."
    He said that he had to work hard.
  11. He said, "I should work hard."
    He said that he should work hard.
  12. He said, "I ought to work hard."
    He said that he ought to work hard.

Now let us analyze these sentences. Notice that in direct speech, we have quotation marks, but in reported speech there are no quotation marks. Also, notice that in reported speech we always used "that" after "he said." Although this word "that" is not essential, try to use it for now to help you remember the structure.

What else have we noticed? Well, the verb tense changes. Reported speech elevates the verb from the present to the past and from the past to the past perfect.

Also, notice sentences number 9 and 10. Reported speech uses the same tense: he said he had to. So, "have to" will change to the past "had to" and "must" will also change to had to.

Also, notice that "should" and "ought to" stayed the same in sentences numbers 11 and 12.

Remember, the more you practice this, the better you will be at it. Just follow the structural rules and you will have no problems.

Now let us observe this for a minute:

Direct: Maria said to me, "I am hungry."

Reported: Maria told me that she was hungry.

What do you see that happened here? You are right; "said to me" changed to "told me."

Notice that "told" is followed immediately by a pronoun object.
(told me, told us, told her, told him, told Juan, told someone)

Using Ask-If:

Look at the following sentences:

  1. Juan said to me, "Are you hungry?"
  2. Maria said to Juan, "Are you married?"
  3. Sam said to Michael, "Do you speak English?"
  4. Teresa said to her boyfriend, "Did you call me?"
  5. Martha said to John, "Have you watched the movie Avalon?"

Let us now look at the way these yes or no questions change in reported speech

  1. Juan asked me if I was hungry.
  2. Maria asked Juan if he was married.
  3. Sam asked Michael if he spoke English.
  4. Teresa asked her boyfriend if he had called her.
  5. Martha asked Juan if he had watched the movie Avalon.

O.K., what do see happening here? Well, "said to" changes to "asked" + the person or the pronoun; the reported speech has the word "if," and the reported speech is not in question form.

So now we can infer the following

Questions that would be answered by yes or no must have the word "if" in the reported form. We can also infer that reported speech must not be in a question form.

Now you try it. Change the following sentences to reported speech:

  1. The teacher said to the students, "Did you finish your homework?"
  2. The mother said to her children, "Have you washed your hands?"
  3. My girlfriend said to me, "Do you speak French?"
  4. The student said to the teacher, "Is what I wrote correct?"

How did you do? Well, I am sure you did well. Now compare your answers to mine.

  1. The teacher asked the students if they had finished their homework.
  2. The mother asked her children if they had washed their hands.
  3. My girlfriend asked me if I spoke French.
  4. The student asked the teacher if what she had written was correct.

Do your answers match mine? How did you do with number four? Did you notice that number four has two verbs, "wrote" and "is?" So, in reported speech, "wrote" (which is past tense) changes to "had written" (past perfect) and "is" (which is present) changes to "was" (past tense).

How are we doing so far?