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.

Comments

Hello aseel aftab,

This is an example of direct speech so there is no time shift needed, as there might be in reported speech. The sentence is an example of what is sometimes called a first conditional, using 'when' rather than 'if'. Present forms are used in the condition clause (with future meaning), and 'will' (or other modal) in the result clause.

You can read more about verbs in time clauses on this page.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I want to ask if you can use ”was saying", "was telling" in indirect speech format e.g "he was saying I needed to be smarter"
or "he was telling me I needed to be smarter"

Hello Tim,

Yes, you can use those forms. This use of the continuous is quite common and it is generally either used to show something repeated (the person said it again and again) or something interrupted (He was telling me to see the doctor but I wasn't listening or She was saying it wasn't her fault but the expression on her face made it clear she was lying). In other words the 'interruption' is the reaction of the person listening and reacting or their thoughts as they listen.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

In a sentnce like, " he was saying Ella was a strange woman when she (Ella) walked in." Is this correct? And is the interruption "she (Ella) walking in"?

Hello Timmosky,

Yes, the sentence is correct and yes, Ella walking in is the interruption, which is normally expressed with a past simple form in a case like this. Well done!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi guys, nowadays when I watch programs on TV I realise that people tend to use "was saying" and "was telling" followed bydirect speech e.g., he was saying, "I need the money." and he was telling me " I like making money." I want to ask if both "saying" and "tellinf

When you report a question in indirect speech , do you always use the past tense? E.g., Someone asked, "do you have change?" reporting this I say, "he asked if I had change and I said I do." But knowing that you have the change before reporting it, can you say "he asked if I have change"

Hi, Just as it with indirect speeches that you can omit the word "that" in many cases, can the same apply when paraphrasing? E.g. indirect speech: "John said (that) the company's policies are too much to bear."
Paraphrasing : "John said (that) the policies of the company are just irrational."

Hello Timmosky,

Yes, that is correct. 'That' is optional here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

So I've realized I ask the most questions here. I'm going through a phase, bear with me sirs. I have a question as regards the proper usage of indirect speeches. In most cases I do forget exactly what was said but I have a memory of what was meant and I build my words based on those. E.g Mary said "I'll not tolerate any barbaric acts from any of my students, please ensure to comply with the rules." when reporting this using indirect speech I tend to say "she said she wouldn't accept any thugery acts from her students and further implored them to obey the rules." is this a correct way to use indirect speech because I changed some words but I believe they still mean the same thing. Can we change words but just make sure it connotes the same thing in indirect speeches.

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