Level: intermediate

Reporting and summarising

When we want to report what people say, we don't usually try to report their exact words. We usually give a summary, for example:

Direct speech (exact words):

Mary: Oh dear. We've been walking for hours! I'm 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 you're tired. I'm tired too. I'll tell you what, let's see if we can find a place to sit down, and then we can stop and have our picnic.

Reported speech (summary):

When Mary complained that she was tired out after walking so far, Peter said they could stop for a picnic.

Reporting verbs

When we want to report what people say, we use reporting verbs. Different reporting verbs have different patterns, for example:

Mary complained (that) she was tired.
(verb + that clause)

She asked if they could stop for a rest.
(verb + if clause)

Peter told her not to worry.
(verb + to-infinitive)

He suggested stopping and having a picnic.
(verb + -ing form) 

See reporting verbs with that, wh- and if clauses, verbs followed by the infinitive, verbs followed by the -ing form.

Reporting and summarising 1

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Reporting and summarising 2

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Tenses in reported speech

When reporting what people say or think in English, we need to remember that the rules for tense forms in reported speech are exactly the same as in the rest of the language.

This is a letter that Andrew wrote ten years ago:

am 22 years old and I am at university studying engineering. I take my final exams next month and I will finish university in July.

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?

look forward to hearing from you.

Regards,

Andrew Brown

If we wanted to report what Andrew said in his letter, we might say something like this: 

Andrew said that when he was 22, he was an engineering student in his last month at 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.

We would naturally use past tense forms to talk about things which happened ten years ago. So, tenses in reports and summaries in English are the same as in the rest of the language.

Sometimes we can choose between a past tense form and a present tense form. If we're talking about the past but we mention something that's still true, we can use the present tense:

John said he'd stayed at the Shangri-la because it's the best 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 the past tense:

John said he'd stayed at the Shangri-la because it was the best 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're talking about something that everybody knows is true, we normally use the present tense:

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

Comments

Hello Timmosky,

Yes, these are ok -- I'd say the present tense is the best choice here.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again, when you try to report an event of a possibility which tense is best to use e.g "if you climb up the tree in my home town, you can virtually see everywhere" or "if you were to climb up the tree in my hometown, you could/can virtually see everywhere" or Are both correct. Thanks

Hello Timmosky,

You could use either sentence, but in most cases you'd probably choose the first one, unless you really want to emphasise the person climbing the tree as hypothetical.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi teachers, when someone says something in the past tense and you find out it's not true, how do you report it. For example someone said "I had done the washing before I ironed my clothes". Now when reporting it, can I say "you lied when you said (that) you had done your washing before you ironed your clothes". Or do I need to backshift the tense again and say "you lied when you said you had had the washing done before you had ironed your clothes"

Hello Timmosky,

The tense is not backshifted again -- the first of your two versions is the correct one.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Firstly, I want to thank you guys for your great work of imparting knowledge on people and I wanna say bless you. I have yet another question. Is there any real difference in the usage of "was saying" and "said". For example someone said: "don't place your bag there" and I'm reporting this. I think it can be: she said not to place my bag there or she was saying I shouldn't place my bag there..are both statements true. Thanks again

Hello Timmosky,

The choice here is between past simple and past continuous. In your example I would say that 'said' is the most likely choice. It is possible to use 'was saying' but it would require a very unusual context, such as her being interrupted as she was speaking.

You can read more about the past simple and continuous on this page, this page and this page.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Okay I was taught that past continuous is used for actions going on in the past, so my first example had been completed in the past before I reported it. Another example she said "math is difficult for young learners" and I report as "she was telling me about the difficulty of maths for young learners"

Hello Timmosky,

It is quite possible to say both 'she told me' and 'she was telling me...' here but the continuous/progressive form needs a particular context. For example, if there is an implied interruption ('...was telling me... when I noticed that...') or if you want to emphasise that the telling is a repeated act ('...was telling me... for years and I never listened'). Aspect reflects the prespective of the speaker regarding the action, not the fact of the action itself.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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.

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