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 Timmosky,

That's really up to you, i.e. it is something you must decide depending on the context and your intentions. If you're doing a grammar exercise on an official English exam, for example, you should probably avoid rephrasing the direct speech. On the other hand, if it's a writing task on an exam, it might be a good idea to rephrase.

Similarly, if you're reporting what someone said in a context where precision is important (e.g. court, translation), you would presumably want to make your indirect speech as close to the direct speech as possible. But if you're summarising what someone says in an informal context, rephrasing as you wish is probably just fine.

I hope this helps you think about how you want to approach the matter.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

When you say summarising what someone says in an informal context, "summarize" here is the same thing as "reporting" what someone said, right?

Hello Tim,

Not quite. Summarising means to shorten and provide the key information, whereas reporting suggests passing on what was actually said in more detail.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

So which is used in indirect speech? Just like I wrote earlier, when speaking, I tend to change the original words said and just paraphrase( but still retain the meaning of the sentence). Is this the same as summarising?

Thanks Kirk I also have another contextual question similar to one I've asked before. When relating someone else's opinion about me which isn't true do I use the present tense or past. E.g. "she thinks i'm a virgin, but I'm not" another example "you think I'm not intellectually sound, but I am" ....are these sentences ok or do one use was instead of am in those situations e.g "she thinks I was a virgin, but I'm not"

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

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