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Reported speech

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


Reporting and summarising 2


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.


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.


If someone said "I was watching a movie when the phone rang", and I were to report it using indirect speech, do I say [He said that he had been watching movie when the telephone rang] or [He said that he was watching a movie when the phone rang]? Or is it a case where both options are correct?

With regards to my above question, and on the backshifting of tenses, I would like to know if it is necessary to change the past continuous to past perfect continuous every single time we convert direct speech to indirect speech?

Similarly, is it necessary to change the simple past to past perfect every single time we convert direct speech to indirect speech?

Hello magnuslin

Regarding your first question, the most common way of saying it is the second one. In some very specific situation, perhaps the first option would be possible.

This also answers your second question. It is not necessary to always backshift using the tenses you mention.

As for your third question, no, it is not necessary. In fact, it is probably more common to use the past simple in the reported speech as well. 

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk, I have a doubt here. how to report these kind of statements in indirect speech?

Direct speech : He said " I was there that day"
Indirect speech : He said he had been there that day
Indirect speech : He said he was there that day

Hello manu,

Both forms are possible. If you use had been then we understand that he was there earlier but not when he said it - in other words, when he said it he had already left. If you use was then he may have left at the time of speaking, or he may have still been there.



The LearnEnglish Team

Help me with this task please:
Report the questions which the host of "Who wants to be a Millionaire"programme used to ask the participants.Begin with the words"He asked them..."
1.What is the largest animal ever to live on Earth?
a). He asked them what the largest animal ever to live on Earth was.
b). He asked them what the largest animal ever to live on Earth is.

Hello _princess_

I would recommend using answer a) because this is the general pattern used in reported speech. Sometimes the verb in the reported clause can be in the present tense when we are speaking about a situation that is still true, but the reported verb in the past tense can also have the same meaning. Since here the time referred to could be either past or present, I'd recommend using the past form.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Can someone explain why in the following reported speech statement we move the "was" to the end?

Direct - She asked him "Where is your new coat?"
Reported - She asked where his new coat was.

Hello mwright,

This is an example of an indirect question. An indirect question reports a question, but is not a question itself, which is why we do not use a question mark at the end. Since it is not a question, we use the normal word order without inversion or auxiliary verbs. For example:

Indicative: He lives in Rome.

Interrogative: Does he live in Rome? (Where does he live?)

Reported: She asked if he lives in Rome. (She asked where he lives.)



The LearnEnglish Team

"The boss is dead!," said the doctor.
"The boss is dead!", said the doctor.
Between the above two sentences which sentence is punctuated correctly.Thanks.

Hello ahlinthit

There are different styles of punctuating direct speech -- in other words, you might find other sources that will disagree with me -- but what I would use here is something different: "The boss is dead!" said the doctor.

Hope this helps.

Best wishes


The LearnEnglish Team