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

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

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.

Hello Knightrider,

The rule here is that if the verb is not moved backward in terms of time reference then the action or state is still current:

"I love you" (direct speech)

He said he loves her - it is still true now that he loves her

If the verb is moved backwards in terms of time reference then we do not know if the action or state is still current:

"I love you" (direct speech)

He said he loved her - we know that it was true when he said it, but we do not know if it is still true now; it may be, or it may not be

Therefore it is perfectly fine to use a verb form which has been moved back in reported speech in this context. It would also be fine to use 'will' in place of 'would'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello sir,

In the sentence " Everybody knew that it was Henry’s birthday tomorrow", shouldn't we change "tomorrow" to " the following day". And write the sentence as : Everybody knew that it was Henry's birthday the following day.

Hello Unique jain,

You could certainly use 'the following day' instead, but 'tomorrow' could be correct. It really depends on when this sentence is said, which of course we don't know in this case.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Ok, Thank you.

Hello sir, In the sentence "John said he had stayed at the Shangri-la because it was the most comfortable hotel in town", John does not think that it is still the most comfortable hotel, as the past tense is used in the sentence, right?

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