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.*
We can report our own or someone else's thoughts too. For example:
- I wonder why she did that. (Thought: Why did she do that?)
- He realized he had forgotten his phone. (Thought: I've forgotten my phone.)
Note: In writing, particularly in fiction writing, it is common to use direct speech: She asked me: "Have you ever ridden a horse?" However, direct speech is unusual in spoken language.
Changes in reported speech
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:
Tense change in reported speech: No change
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:
Tense change in reported speech: Backshift
Tense change in reported speech happens in one of the following cases:
- when what was said is no longer true
- when the reporter does not believe/trust the speaker
- when the reporter wants to be neutral (i.e. convey neither belief nor disbelief in what the speaker said).
- 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). This tense change is often called backshift.
Here are some examples of backshift:
* 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 ("I 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 grammatical.
Many English learners are taught to follow the mandatory backshift rule (also called the sequence of tenses). This rule states that you must put the verb in the reported speech clause into the past simple or past perfect tense even if what is reported is still true.
For example: She said: "I live in London." → She said she lived in London. Or He said: "I have bought a new phone." → He said he had bought a new phone.
If you are studying for a grammar examination in reported speech, you may be expected to backshift in all cases.
The three most common verbs when reporting what you have heard or read are said, told and asked. These are fairly neutral. But very often reporters add their own interpretation by using other verbs. For example, instead of just saying John said he would help me with my homework, the reporter says John promised to help me with my homework.
Here are a few of the many reporting verbs that add the reporter's interpretation:
It is useful to know these alternative reporting verbs. But note that they have their own grammar, which must be learned for each one.
More resources on reported speech
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.
There are several interactive quizzes on reported speech in the Other grammar drop-down menu on the Grammar index.