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 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!

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

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.

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

Submitted by aseel aftab on Sat, 06/01/2018 - 12:20

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Paul said that "if I knew the answer I would tell you" Paul said said that "If he knew the answer he would tell us" as a general we change past simple into past perfect so it should be had known but somebody correct me that should that which I have written earlier why backshif is not used here?

Hello aseel aftab,

The direct speech is as follows:

If I knew the answer I would tell you.

 

There are different options for reporting this:

Paul said that if he had known the answer he would have told me.

Paul said that if he knew the answer he would tell me.

The first sentence describes a situation in the past. It tells us nothing about the present. We know only that at a time in the past Paul did not tell me the answer, but would have told me then if he had known (according to him).

The second sentence tells us the same thing, but also tells us that the situation is still current. It describes the past (when Paul said this) and the present (it is still true now).

The distinction is similar to the examples I gave in my last answer to you on this topic. Please take a look at those examples as I think they make it much clearer.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by aseel aftab on Sat, 06/01/2018 - 11:39

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The dwarf said "promise me that when you are Queen you will give me your first born child" so is it correct to say that "The dwarf asked her to promise him that when she was queen she would give her first born child".

Hello aseel aftab,

Yes, that is one way you could transform it into indirect speech. There are also other possible ways, e.g. 'The dwarf told her to promise to give him her first born child when she became Queen'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by aseel aftab on Sat, 06/01/2018 - 00:11

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Jack said he must be guilty. Jack said he must have been guilty. Why is it correct because must changes into had to and some said it can remain must also what are the correct rules for must.

Hello aseel aftab,

Both 'must' and 'had to' are possible here:

  1. Jack said he must be guilty
  2. Jack said he must have been guilty.

Sentence 1 gives us information us about the past and the present. The person was guilty in the past (when Jack spoke) and he is still guilty now.

Sentence 2 tells us only about the past. The person was guilty in the past. We do not know anything about whether or not it is still true.

 

In reported speech if a situation is still true then we do not need to change the tense.

Another example might help to clarify this:

  1. She said she loves me.
  2. She said she loved me.

In sentence 1 she loved me when she spoke (past) and still loves me now.

In sentence 2 she loved me when she spoke (past) and may or may not still love me now - we do not know. 

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by aseel aftab on Fri, 05/01/2018 - 23:37

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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,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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

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

In reply to by Peter M.

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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

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

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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

Submitted by Timmosky on Fri, 22/12/2017 - 18:26

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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"

Submitted by Timmosky on Sun, 03/12/2017 - 10:49

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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."

Submitted by Timmosky on Wed, 29/11/2017 - 20:00

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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.

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

Submitted by Timmosky on Tue, 28/11/2017 - 12:40

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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

Submitted by Timmosky on Tue, 28/11/2017 - 09:43

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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