Many teachers and learners think that tense forms in reported speech are complex.

In fact, "reported speech" follows exactly the same rules as the rest of the language.

1. When we report what people say or think we use:

  • clauses with that:

Everybody knew that it was Henry’s birthday tomorrow.
She explained that she would do as much as she could to help.

but we can leave out the word that:

Everybody knew it was Henry’s birthday tomorrow.
She explained she would do as much as she could to help.

  • wh-clauses (see Wh-clauses) and clauses with if (see note in Wh-clauses)

He was asked what he had been doing the previous night.
She explained why she went by train rather than by car.

  • to-infinitives:

We all agreed to do as much as we could.
Who told you to come?

2. We very rarely try to report exactly what someone has said. We usually give a summary:

Mary: Oh dear, we’ve been walking for hours. I am exhausted. I don’t think I can go any further. I really need to stop for a rest.
Peter: Don’t worry. I’m not surprised that you’re tired. I’m tired too. I’ll tell you what. I’ll see if I can find a place to sit down, and then we can stop and have our picnic.
>>>
When Mary complained that she was tired out after walking so far, Peter said they could stop for a picnic.

3. Tense forms in reports and summaries.

When we are reporting what people say or think in English we need to remember:

  • that the tense forms in reports and summaries are the same as in the rest of the language:
This is a letter that Andrew Brown wrote ten years ago:

I am twenty-two years old and I am at University studying engineering. I take my final exams next month and I will finish university in July.

I want to take a year off and travel round the world. I will need to make some money while I am travelling so I would like to learn to teach English as a second language so that I can make some money while I am abroad. A friend of mine has recommended your course very highly. She also gave me some details, but I would like to ask a few more questions.

What courses do you have in the summer and when do they start? How much do the courses cost? Is there an examination at the end?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Regards,

Andrew Brown.

 If you were telling a story about Andrew then you might write something like this:
When Andrew was 22 he was an engineering student in his last month at the university. He wanted to travel abroad after he had finished his course at the university, but he would need to earn some money while he was abroad so he wanted to learn to teach English as a foreign language. A friend had recommended a course but Andrew needed more information. So he wrote to the school and asked them when their courses started and how much they were. He also wanted to know if there was an examination at the end of the course.

You would use past tense forms to talk about something that happened ten years ago.

If you were reporting or summarising what Andrew wrote you might start off by saying:

Andrew told me that when he was 22 he was an engineering student in his last month…

... and you could go on in the same way. You would use past tense forms to talk about something which happened ten years ago. So tense forms in reports and summaries in English are the same as in the rest of the language.

  • Sometimes you have to choose between a past tense form and a present tense form.

    If you are talking about the past but you mention something that is still true you could use a present tense form to show you agree that it is true:

John said he had stayed at the Shangri-la because it is the most comfortable hotel in town.
Mary said she enjoyed the film because Robert de Niro is her favourite actor.
Helen said she loves visiting New York.

... or a past tense form:

John said he had stayed at the Shangri-la because it was the most comfortable hotel in town.
Mary said she enjoyed the film because Robert de Niro was her favourite actor.
Helen said she loved visiting New York,

  • If we are talking about something that everybody knows is true we normally use a present tense:

Michael said he had always wanted to climb Everest because it is the highest mountain in the world.
Mary said she loved visiting New York because it is such an exciting city.

4.  to-infinitives in reports and summaries:

We often use the to-infinitive after verbs of thinking and feeling to report or summarise actions:

decide - hope - intend

  • “I think I will start all over again” >>>
    He decided to start all over again.
  • “I am going to write to the newspaper about it” >>>
    She intended to write to the newspaper about it.

… and verbs of saying:

agree - promise - refuse

  • “I can do the shopping for you if you like” >>>
    He agreed to do the shopping for me.
  • I’m sorry. I would love to help you but I’m afraid I can’t >>>
    She refused to help me.

After some verbs we use a direct object and the infinitive (see verbs followed by infinitive):

advise - ask - encourage - invite - order - remind - tell - warn -
expect - intend - want - would like - would prefer

  • “I think you should turn the lights out now” >>>
    She reminded me to turn the lights out.
  • “Be very careful, children. The sea can be very dangerous so please don’t go in the water.” >>>
    She warned the children not to go in the water.


 

Match the sentences with the reports/summaries.

Section: 

Comments

Hello,

I have some queries on reporting structure.

Should I always use past simple in the beginning of reporting clause or there are more choices? It seems to me two choices would be logical
I didn't know/I hadn't known

'I didn't know you smoked'(it is still true that the person smokes)
Is the only reason why to smoke is used in the past simple form because of the subject's knowing in the past? The subject reports his 'verbing' and also relates the time of the 'verbing.' If I am correct, I could say 'I didn't know you had smoked' and relate my knowing in the past of the past, and I also could relate the past and present, for example, I could say 'I didn't know you have been in Paris' because it is still true. Am I right?

'I knew she knew/knows you smoke'

Speaking about complex reporting, could I indicate her knowing, using other aspect than past and present simple? For example
'I knew she had known you smoke'

Thank you.

Hello JamalMkav,

If you say

I didn't know you smoked

then what has changed is that now you know this. We don't know if the sentence refers to the present as well as the past (the person still smokes) or just the past (the person smoked in the past but does not now). Of course, the context will make this clear. The smoking could be on one particular occasion or it could be a reference to a habit.

If we say

I didn't know you had smoked

then we are referring to a particular instance - one time - which was before another event in the past, not to a general habit.

The sentence

I didn't know you have been to Paris

would be very unusual, I think, and the past perfect form would be more likely. It is possible to mix tenses in this way. For example:

I'm sorry - I didn't know you are from Spain or I would have asked you.

However, certain examples are in common use and others are not. I would say that your example would be quite unusual.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hello sir ,
could you please explain difference between IF and WHETHER.(how to choose the correct one)
Let me know if you need any help.
or
Let me know whether you need any help.

Hello dlis,

There is a very good summary of the difference on this page.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,
in this example:
'Everybody knew that it was Henry’s birthday tomorrow'
why we didn't say .'Everybody knows that it is Henry’s birthday tomorrow.' because it's still tomorrow
and If I say that is it correct
and in these examples
'She said she is living there with them.'
'he said he can swim.'
why we didn't say 'says'
and please also in this example: 'Shakespeare said (that) all the world's a stage'
why we use the present tense here? I mean when backshift is important in the sentence?

Hello Mohamed,

The first of the first two sentences you ask about is not entirely correct - it would be better to say 'the next day' instead of 'tomorrow', because 'tomorrow' is used within the perspective of the present time. That sentence, which has a past verb ('knew') is not within the perspective of the present time, but rather the past. The second sentence, which is in the present, is correct.

In the next sentence, you could say 'she was living' and it would also be correct. It's also possible to use the present, too, though, and this makes the fact of her living there more present, but really it means the same thing. In the other examples of reported speech, the second part of each sentence contains a statement about something that doesn't change, and the present simple is used in such situations.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you, Sir

Michael said he had always wanted to climb Everest because it is the highest mountain in the world
Sir if don't write "had" here then it is correct or not?

Hello krishnasisodia,

The sentence without 'had' is not grammatically wrong. Whether it is appropriate for a given context depends on the context, of course.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear LearnEnglish team,

I've come across this sentence in reported speech that is leaving me a bit puzzled because of the verb tense used:
"Emmanuel Macron, a former economy minister in France’s Socialist government, announced that he would run for the French presidency next year (2017)."

Is it correct to use this "future in the past" if the presidential elections are still to be held? I was expecting "will" or "is going to" run for...Normally you can say something like: "He said (that) he would have lunch with us" after the lunch has either taken place or not but not before. Is there something I am missing?

I'd really appreciate a reply from you. Thanks.

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