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The Simple Guide to Reported Speech

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

The English language may seem to be fairly simple for a first language speaker, but when it comes to explaining the different parts of speech and their uses, even experienced speakers may find that that are at a loss for words. This is where a simple guide will come in handy – whether you are learning English or teaching it to someone else, the simple guide series will tell you everything you need to know. This one deals with reported speech.

What is reported speech?

Reported speech is used when we take what someone else has said and say it to another person (we report what has been said) e.g.

Harry: "I am not feeling well"

Reported speech: Harry said he is not feeling well.

When using reported speech, the tense of what is being said can change. The above tense has stayed the same because the speech that is being reported is happening right now (let us assume that you are speaking to Harry on the phone, and as he tells you that he is not feeling well, you are telling someone else). But what if the conversation happened a few hours ago, or yesterday – then the tense of the reported speech would change as follows:

Harry said that he was not feeling well.

The time that the original speech was said determines the tense of the reported speech – this will almost always be the past tense, but the above example illustrates how things that are said and reported now remain the same.

Note: "Said" can be changed to "say" or "says" (He says he is sick) when reporting speech that has happened now, but if the conversation has passed, only "said" can be used.

Reporting questions

When using reported speech to refer to questions that were asked, the question word remains (how, when, where, why etc.), "said" becomes "asked", "enquired", "wanted to know" (or another similar term) and the question mark is removed e.g.

Where is John going?

Reported speech examples: He wanted to know where John was going; He asked where John was going; He is asking where John is going

When no question words are used, "if" and "whether" are almost always used e.g.

Is John going?

Reported speech examples: He asked whether John was going; He wanted to know if John was going; He wants to know if John is going

Note: The same tense rules used with reported speech applies to questions as well. The verb changes to the past tense if the question was in the past, and remains the same when it was asked "now". The verb involving the action that is being asked about can however stay the same if it is still under way, even if the question has passed e.g. "He asked where John was going" can also be "He asked where John is going" if John is still on his way.

How is each tense changed?

When using reported speech, the speech that is being reported will usually have passed, so the tense of the reported statement will have to change from that of the original statement. You will notice that no matter what tense is used, it changes to some form of past tense. Each tense is changed as follows:

- Present simple becomes Past simple e.g.

I like running long distances = She said she liked running long distances

- Present Continuous becomes Past continuous e.g.

I am running to keep fit = He said he was running to keep fit

Present perfect becomes past perfect e.g.

I have run the route before = He said he had run the route before

Present perfect continuous becomes Past perfect continuous e.g.

I have been running for eight years = She said she had been running for eight years

Past simple become Past perfect e.g.

I ran yesterday = He said he had run yesterday

Past continuous becomes Past perfect continuous e.g.

They were running faster than usual = He said they had been running faster than usual

Past perfect becomes past perfect continuous

I had run for miles = She said she had been running for miles

Past perfect continuous remains past perfect continuous e.g.

I had been running in every race that year = He said he had been running in every race that year

Will becomes would e.g.

I will practice running tomorrow = She said she would practice running tomorrow

Note: As always, there are exceptions – and these will be learnt over time as one gains experience with the language. One clear exception is when we talk about something that was said in the path but still applies now. "I like cake" can remain in the present simple tense ("He said he likes cake") rather than be changed to the past simple tense ("He said he liked cake") as the speaker probably still likes cake. Changing this sentence to the past simple tense can make it mean that the speaker no longer likes cake – which may not fit the meaning of what is being said.

For more on tenses, see the simple guides to present, past and future tenses.

Some other words that change

Words other than verbs are also sometimes changed when using reported speech. "This" becomes "that" and "here" becomes "there" e.g.

I like this table = He said he liked that table

I like it here = She said she likes it there

Words referring to time are often changed. Today can become yesterday, that day, previous day or any explanation of the day e.g.

I'll do it today

Reported speech examples: He said he would do it yesterday (used the day after); He said he would do it that day (used more than one day after); He said he would do it the previous day (used when making reference to the day after); He said he would do it the day we arrived

Tomorrow can become the next day, the following day; the day after, today, yesterday and any explanation of the day e.g.

I'll do it tomorrow

Reported speech examples: She said she would do it the day after (used two or more days after); She said she would do it yesterday (used two days after); She said she would do it the following day (two or more days after)

Certain words and phrases can be used in the place of "said" and "say", some examples are:

He told me to go; He shouted that you should come back early; He explained that it was the right thing to do

When no subjects are used

Sometimes a subject is missing from the sentence (e.g. Put it there). If no subject needs to be used in the reported speech, "to" is placed before the verb e.g.

He said to put it there.

If a subject does need to be used the subject (whether a pronoun or a name) is determined through the context of the sentence and a suitable modal verb is used before the verb e.g.

He said you should put it there; He said John must put it there

Note: Other phrases can be used in the place of "said" in this case e.g. He told you to put it there; He explained to them to put it there. Adding "to" before the base form of a verb changes the verb into an infinitive.

A note on pronouns

When a pronoun is used as the object of the original sentence, the pronoun can have many different meanings depending on the context of the reported speech e.g.

I met you yesterday

Reported speech examples: He said he met you yesterday; He said he met her yesterday; He set he met them yesterday; He said he met me yesterday; He said he met it yesterday

It all depends on who or what was being spoken to in the first place, as well as who or what is being spoken to using the reported speech – when pronouns are used as objects we need to know the context to make use of correct reported speech.

Keep it simple

Learning every example of reported speech can be difficult, but all that it requires is taking one step at a time and having the patience to learn through experience. Knowing when to keep the tense the same (when things happen now are or still true now) and how to change each tense when the speech being reported has passed will ensure that you know the bulk of what is necessary to effectively use reported speech – further changes and exceptions will be learnt through experience and practice .


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