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

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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.

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Submitted by Melis_06 on Tue, 13/02/2024 - 09:51

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Hi! I found the following paragraph from a grammar site while I was studying the reported speech. Can you help me?
It says;
--> We can use a perfect form with have + -ed form after modal verbs, especially where the report looks back to a hypothetical event in the past:
He said the noise might have been the postman delivering letters. (original statement: ‘The noise might be the postman delivering letters.’)

And my question is: How do we understand if it is a hypothetical event in the past or not? We normally don't change 'might' in reported speech. (e.g.
‘It might snow tonight,’ he warned. --> He warned that it might snow that night.) But why do we say 'He said the noise might have been the postman delivering letters.' instead of 'He said that the noise might be the postman delivering letters.’ What's the difference between these two indirect reported speeches? Could you please explain the difference?
And I also found this example which is about the same rule above:
--> He said he would have helped us if we’d needed a volunteer.
(original statement: a) ‘I’ll help you if you need a volunteer’ or b) ‘I’d help you if you needed a volunteer.’)
Can you also explain why we report this sentence like that. How can we both change a) and b) into the same indirect reported speech?
Thank you very much!

Hello Melis_06,

1. He said the noise might have been the postman delivering letters.

2. He said that the noise might be the postman delivering letters.

In sentence 1 it is clear that the noise has ended; it is a noise that 'he' could hear but it is not a noise that you can hear now. In sentence 2 the noise could have ended or it could be a noise that you can still hear now. For example, if the noise is one which is constant, such as a noise that comes from your car engine that you are still trying to identify, then you would use sentence 2. In other words, sentence 2 allows for a wider range of time possibilities - both past (ended) and present (still current).

 

Your second question is similar:

He said he would have helped us if we needed a volunteer - you no longer need a volunteer

He said he would help us if we needed a volunteer - this could still be relevant; you may still need a volunteer.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by HLH on Tue, 26/09/2023 - 09:38

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Hello
my friend : what are you doing now?
me : I'm eating an apple now
and My friend repeated his question now

my question

Can I repeat the sentence in the past ( I was eating an apple) and mean( I'm eating an apple now) ?

Hi HLH,

You can but it is unusual. If you say I was eating an apple (past continuous), it means that it was in the past. You already finished eating the apple and you are not eating it now. But if your friend asked you just a moment ago, I guess you are still eating the apple when she/he asks the second question, so I would say I'm eating an apple (because you are still doing it).

Alternatively, you can use a past tense reporting verb e.g. I said I was eating an apple (referring to the time of the first question), or I said I'm eating an apple (to show that you are still eating it now, at the moment of speaking).

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Am I correct then? When someone wants us to repeat the sentence we have just said a moment ago we say 'I said I am doing...' if we are still doing that action. But if we are done with that action, then we say 'I said I was doing...' Did I get it right?
Thanks!

Submitted by Aamna bluemoon on Mon, 14/08/2023 - 21:53

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Hi.
I wish to enquire if the verb tense used after a conjunction also changes in complex sentences as per tense transition rules, especially if it is already in simple past tense.
In order to explain, could you please solve the following for me:
1. It has been quite a while since I last saw you.
2. Nevertheless, she has been quite desensitized to such perverse actions
to the extent that it seldom ever seems obnoxious to her.
3. Let me keep this in my cupboard lest I misplace this.
4. I had arrived at the station before you even left your house.
5. I met my grandfather before he died.

Hi Aamna bluemoon,

The verb may or may not be backshifted, depending on whether the original speaker's point of view and the reporter's point of view are the same or not. For example:

  • She said it had been quite a while since she last saw me. (it seems relatively recent, for both the original speaker and the reporter)
  • She said it had been quite a while since she had last seen us. (a lot of time has passed between speaking and reporting this, or the situation has changed a lot since then e.g. they have met frequently since then)
  • She said she had met her grandfather before he died. (seems quite recent)
  • She said she had met her grandfather before he'd died. (a lot of time has passed between speaking and reporting this)

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by bri.q630 on Sat, 20/05/2023 - 06:23

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Hi, can you help me, please?
How could I report this famous quotation:
'There's no such things as good news in America'.

Hi bri.q630,

First of all, the sentence is not grammatically correct. The phrase is 'no such thing' (singular), not 'things'.

How you report it depends. Using 'said' as the reporting verb we have two possibilities:

1. They said (that) there's no such thing as good news in America.

2. They said (that) there was no such thing as good news in America.

Sentence 2 tells that only about the time when 'they' said it. It does not tell us if it is still true or not.

Sentence 1 tells us that what 'they' said is still relevant today. In other words there was no good news (in their opinion) when they spoke, and there is still no good news now.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nobori on Wed, 08/02/2023 - 04:12

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Thank you Peter,

All things are getting clear to me.

So, you mean, I can use both sentences depending on what I want to indicate, can't I?

then the possible indications are bellow, are those correct?

1-a I remembered the World War 2 ended in 1945.
(This would be indicated the statement is still ture.)

1-b I remembered the World War 2 had ended in 1945.
(This would be indicated I might missunderstand.)

2-a I felt time is money.
(This would be indicated the statement is still ture.)

2-b I felf time was money.
(This would be indicated I might not feel any more.)

3-a I knew the sun rises in the east.
(This would be indicated the statement is still true.)

3-b I knew the sun rase in the east.
(This would be indicated I might misunderstand or forget.)

4-a I guessed* that Darth Vader is Luke's father.
(This would be indicated I still believe he is.*sorry for the typo)

4-2 I guessed that Darth Vader was Luke's father.
(This would be indicated I might know he is not.)

Thank you in advance.

Hello again Nobori,

1-a I remembered the World War 2 ended in 1945.
(This would be indicated the statement is still ture.)

1-b I remembered the World War 2 had ended in 1945.
(This would be indicated I might missunderstand.)

Both forms are possible here. The 'ending' is a moment in the past; after this there is no war. By the way, we treat 'World War 2' as a name so there is no article before it.

 

2-a I felt time is money.
(This would be indicated the statement is still ture.)

2-b I felf time was money.
(This would be indicated I might not feel any more.)

That's correct. Remember that backshifting the verb does not mean something is no longer true; it simply does not tell us anything about the present. Here, it tells the reader how you felt at a given moment in time; you may 

 

3-a I knew the sun rises in the east.
(This would be indicated the statement is still true.)

3-b I knew the sun rase in the east.
(This would be indicated I might misunderstand or forget.)

That's also correct. Again, remember that backshifting the verb does not mean something is no longer true; it simply does not tell us anything about the present.

 

4-a I guessed* that Darth Vader is Luke's father.
(This would be indicated I still believe he is.*sorry for the typo)

4-2 I guessed that Darth Vader was Luke's father.
(This would be indicated I might know he is not.)

Again, correct. In the second example it might still be true that he is Luke's father, or it might have turned out to be not true. The sentence does not tell us.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Alamgir3 on Mon, 06/02/2023 - 09:32

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Hi,
I am translating a fiction novel into English and need your help regarding the reporting speech as for few things I am not getting any clear understanding over the internet. As you know in fiction, we need to write in non-ordinary way to create unique impressions of the word and academic writing is different than speaking. Will be grateful if you could give your insight below, especially considering in the context of fiction/academic writing.

1) Let’s say If someone is giving a speech or presentation, I want to mix their speech, indirect-direct and past tense- present tense. Below are three examples:

-He said, their company makes excellent profit every year OR their company made excellent profit every year ( can both be correct? As the sentence)

- Roger had given his speech yesterday. He said, their company makes excellent profit every year and your company will sustain for next hundred years.(Can YOUR be used in the sentence)

- Roger said people wants to feel important OR Roger said people wanted to feel important (which will be correct as this is a trait which is true in past and present)

2) He thought why he is talking to her OR He thought why he was talking to her (are both write? As usually I see in novels the second example with WAS)

3) Gia was sitting with Jake and she told him she had met with her last year. Her mother had taken her to the dinner. Her mother had told her about her future plans. Her mother also had paid the bill for the dinner. (Do I need to use every time past perfect in this example though it doesn’t feel natural? As a rule of thumb I think past perfect needs to be used when we talk about another past event in the past )

Hello Alamgir3,

We're happy to help with a few specific grammar questions, but I'm afraid we can't help you with your translation -- I'd suggest you find an editor for that.

1) In the second clause, you can use present or past. We often use the present when it's still true now, but the past is not wrong. FYI we don't normally use a comma after 'said' in reported speech.

2) 'Why was he talking to her?' he thought.

3) This is really more of a question of style than grammar. Here I would suggest doing something like combining the four sentences into two and then leaving out 'had' in the second verb in each sentence. Even if it isn't written, it's understood to be past perfect.

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Hello teachers,
I'm sorry, I could not find where to new post.
Could you tell me about the back-sifting of thoughts bellow?
Which forms are correct?

1-a I remembered the World War 2 ended in 1945.
1-b I remembered the World War 2 had ended in 1945.

2-a I felt time is money.
2-b I felf time was money.

3-a I knew the sun rises in the east.
3-b I knew the sun rase in the east.

4-a I guess that Darth Vader is Luke's father.
4-2 I guessed that Darth Vader was Luke's father.

Do those questions have the same conclusion as indirect speech, such as say and tell?

Thank you in advance.

Hello Nobori,

The verb form remains the same when we want to make it clear that the situation described by the verb is still true, and this works in the same way as indirect speech. For example:

She said she loves me. [she loved me then and she loves me still]

She said she loved me. [she loved me then; no information on how she feels now]

Other than this rule, the choice is really contextual and stylistic (up to the speaker). Sometimes a choice implies something. For example, the saying 'time is money' is a general statement, so if you choose to backshift here the listener will know it is an intentional choice and suspect that something has changed (you no longer believe it).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by rahmanagustiansyah on Fri, 14/01/2022 - 09:03

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Hi teachers, I've read almost the section of comments below and my summarize is the present tense only can be used if the statement is still true now and past simple only tells the statement was true in the past and doesn't tell the statement is true or not now. Just to make sure, I wanna ask, If I'm not sure whether the statement is still true or not now, can I choose backshift instead (this is still apply to past tense become past perfect)? Thank you

Hello rahmanagustiansyah,

It sounds to me as if you've got the right general idea. Could you please give a couple of example sentences that illustrate your question?

Thanks in advance,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

For example, Steve said "Anna hates you." Then I wanna tell about that to my friend, but I'm not sure whether Anna still hates me or not now. What should I choose between these two options. Answer 1:Steve said Anna hates me or Answer 2 : Steve said Anna hated me. Thank you

Hi rahmanagustiansyah,

In that case, I would choose answer 2. I might even add "... but I don't know if she still does" to the sentence to clarify, if that is the key point you want to communicate.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Natasa Tanasa on Fri, 27/08/2021 - 16:04

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Hello! Could you please help me with the reported speech: "Who was that beautiful woman? answer 1: She asked me who that beautiful woman had been. answer 2: She asked me who that beautiful woman was." Which one is correct? Thank you so much for your help! 3

Hello Natasa Tanasa,

Both sentences are grammatically possible.

 

The first sentence is only possible if when the person asks the original question the woman is no longer there (she has already gone). The second sentence can be used in this situation too, or in a situation in which the woman was still there when the original question was asked. As the past tense is used in the original question (Who was...), both sentences are possible.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 22/06/2021 - 21:29

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Hello. Could you please help me? Which form is correct? If both are correct, which one is safer to use in an exam. - A stranger asked me where the supermarket (is - was). Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

When the situation is still true at the time of reporting, we can leave the verb form unchanged. For example:

1. She told me she loved me.

2. She told me she loves me.

In sentence 1 we know she loved me when she told me but we don't know whether or not she loves me now. In sentence 2, we know she loved me when she told me and we know that she loves me now.

 

In your example, if the supermarket is still in the same place then we can use either form. If the supermarket has been closed down or moved to another location then we need to use was.

 

As for which is 'safer', you'll need to make your own mind up! Keeping the verb in the same form carries more specific information and that may be appropriate or even important.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by eugelatina87 on Wed, 16/12/2020 - 03:28

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Hello. I don't know how to complete the follwing reported sentence: "Sebastián asked the manager where the showers were". This is the original sentence I have to complete this Gap: Sebastián asked the manager, "Where_____ showers? After "where" should come showers... But in this example it is at the end.

Hello eugelatina87,

I'll give you a hint: a verb is missing from the question.

Does that help you complete it?

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LL on Wed, 28/10/2020 - 01:58

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Hi, what tense should be used after reported speech? If he is Mary's boyfriend since sometime ago and it is still happening. - He admitted that he is Mary's boyfriend. - He admitted that he was Mary's boyfriend. - He admitted that he has been Mary's boyfriend. - He admitted that he had been Mary's boyfriend.

Hello LL,

The first two sentences are possible and they can both mean that he is still Mary's boyfriend now. The first one makes this more clear, but the second one doesn't only refer to the past.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by VegitoBlue on Tue, 23/06/2020 - 00:55

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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

Kirk

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 or 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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by _princess_ on Sun, 10/05/2020 - 19:06

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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. Or 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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by mwrigh17 on Fri, 15/11/2019 - 14:02

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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.)

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ahlinthit on Sat, 20/07/2019 - 06:23

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"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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Timmosky on Tue, 30/01/2018 - 09:05

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I have been studying English for a while now, and even though I know the rule to this question I'm about to ask, I want to know why it's like that. Why do we always use plural verbs after the auxiliary "to do" e.g., "he does know I care about him" and "she did go to the mall yesterday"

Hello Timmosky,

The form that comes after the auxiliary verb 'do' (or 'does' or 'did') is not the plural present simple verb, but rather the bare infinitive (also known as 'base form' or 'first form') of the verb. Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sky-high on Sun, 21/01/2018 - 10:12

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hello sir, I have a doubt in understanding sentences which includes " to the effect". for example: The Registrar on the basis of documents and information shall register all the documents and information and issue a certificate of incorporation in the prescribed form to the effect that the proposed company is incorporated under this Act. what is to the effect mean.
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Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 22/01/2018 - 07:47

In reply to by sky-high

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Hello sky-high,

This is very formal language. The phrase 'to the effect that' means 'with the meaning that'. In this context it can be understood to mean 'with the result that'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Timmosky on Fri, 19/01/2018 - 15:50

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Peter said "I don't think Rooney is still in good shape." what's the difference between these two reported formats 1. "Peter said he doesn't think Rooney is still in good shape." 2. "Peter says he doesn't think Rooney is still in good shape.". Can said and says be used interchangeably when the reported event is still true?

Hello Tim,

The difference is quite logical. If we use 'said' then we are talking about a claim by Peter in the past which he may or may not still maintain. If we use 'says' then we are talking about an opinion expressed by Peter which he still holds.

The reported information (whether or not Rooney is in good shape) can refer to only the past or to the present as well and the statement (what Peter thinks) can separately refer to only the past or the present as well. Of course, all of this is from the point of view of the person reporting Peter's opinion, and whether or not they think that Peter still thinks now what he thought then.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Timmosky on Sat, 13/01/2018 - 09:12

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When you know that an event remains true and you want to report it in indirect speech, do you use present tense or past. E.g., Mary said: "The business is not growing " Reported speech: "Mary said that the business is not growing" or "Mary said that the business was not growing."

Hello Tim,

Both are possible. If you use the present tense then it is clear that the statement is still true (i.e. the business was not growing when Mary spoke and is still not growing now). If you use the past tense then no information is given regarding the present (i.e. the business was growing when Mary spoke and may or may not be growing now).

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by aseel aftab on Tue, 09/01/2018 - 23:50

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They said"we might drop in if we have time" They said that they might drop in if they have time" why the have shouldn't be changed is it possible to say "if they had" time in such sentences?

Hello aseel aftab,

It should be 'if they had'. This is not from this page, is it? I don't see it anywhere here, but if I've missed it please let me know.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team