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.

Average: 5 (9 votes)
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Submitted by aseel aftab on Fri, 05/01/2018 - 23:37

Hello sir, I have a question the dwarf said to her"promise me that when you are Queen you will give me your first born child" in the clause when you are Queen will change to was queen or it will remain the same? Because we do not use conditionals of time in past tense.

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,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Timmosky on Fri, 05/01/2018 - 22:59

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,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Timmosky on Tue, 09/01/2018 - 15:00

In reply to by Peter M.

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,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Timmosky on Fri, 05/01/2018 - 22:55

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