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

When you know that an event remains true and you want to report it in indirect speech, do you use present tense or past. E.g., Mary said: "The business is not growing " Reported speech: "Mary said that the business is not growing" or "Mary said that the business was not growing."

Hello Tim,

Both are possible. If you use the present tense then it is clear that the statement is still true (i.e. the business was not growing when Mary spoke and is still not growing now). If you use the past tense then no information is given regarding the present (i.e. the business was growing when Mary spoke and may or may not be growing now).

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

They said"we might drop in if we have time" They said that they might drop in if they have time" why the have shouldn't be changed is it possible to say "if they had" time in such sentences?

Hello aseel aftab,

It should be 'if they had'. This is not from this page, is it? I don't see it anywhere here, but if I've missed it please let me know.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Paul said that "if I knew the answer I would tell you" Paul said said that "If he knew the answer he would tell us" as a general we change past simple into past perfect so it should be had known but somebody correct me that should that which I have written earlier why backshif is not used here?

Hello aseel aftab,

The direct speech is as follows:

If I knew the answer I would tell you.

 

There are different options for reporting this:

Paul said that if he had known the answer he would have told me.

Paul said that if he knew the answer he would tell me.

The first sentence describes a situation in the past. It tells us nothing about the present. We know only that at a time in the past Paul did not tell me the answer, but would have told me then if he had known (according to him).

The second sentence tells us the same thing, but also tells us that the situation is still current. It describes the past (when Paul said this) and the present (it is still true now).

The distinction is similar to the examples I gave in my last answer to you on this topic. Please take a look at those examples as I think they make it much clearer.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

The dwarf said "promise me that when you are Queen you will give me your first born child" so is it correct to say that "The dwarf asked her to promise him that when she was queen she would give her first born child".

Hello aseel aftab,

Yes, that is one way you could transform it into indirect speech. There are also other possible ways, e.g. 'The dwarf told her to promise to give him her first born child when she became Queen'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Could the indirect speech also be, "the dwarf told her to promise that she would give him her first born child when she became queen." And " the dwarf told her to promise that when she became queen, she would give him her first born child."

Hello Timmosky,

Yes, both are correct.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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