What is reported speech?
“Reported speech” is when we talk about what somebody else said – for example:
- Direct Speech: “I’ve been to London three times.”
- Reported Speech: She said she’d been to London three times.
There are a lot of tricky little details to remember, but don’t worry, I’ll explain them and we’ll see lots of examples. The lesson will have three parts – we’ll start by looking at statements in reported speech, and then we’ll learn about some exceptions to the rules, and finally we’ll cover reported questions, requests, and commands.
So much of English grammar – like this topic, reported speech – can be confusing, hard to understand, and even harder to use correctly. I can help you learn grammar easily and use it confidently inside my Advanced English Grammar Course.
In this course, I will make even the most difficult parts of English grammar clear to you – and there are lots of opportunities for you to practice!
Backshift of Verb Tenses in Reported Speech
When we use reported speech, we often change the verb tense backwards in time. This can be called “backshift.”
Here are some examples in different verb tenses:
|Direct Speech||Reported Speech|
“I want to go home.”
She said she wanted to go home.
“I’m reading a good book.”
She said she was reading a good book.
“I ate pasta for dinner last night.”
She said she’d eaten pasta for dinner the night before.
“I’ve just finished cleaning my room.”
“My mother has never been to Japan.”
She said she’d just finished cleaning her room.
She said her mother had never been to Japan.
“I can meet with you next Monday.”
“Sorry, I can’t talk now; I’m at work.”
She said she could meet with me next Monday.
She said she couldn’t talk at the moment because she was at work.
“I’ll pick him up from the airport.”
“I won’t tell anyone your secret.”
She said she would pick him up from the airport.
She said she wouldn’t tell anyone my secret.
“You should apologize.”
She said I should apologize.
Reported Speech (Part 1) Quiz
Exceptions to Backshift in Reported Speech
Now that you know some of the reported speech rules about backshift, let’s learn some exceptions.
There are two situations in which we do NOT need to change the verb tense.
No backshift needed when the situation is still true
For example, if someone says “I have three children” (direct speech) then we would say “He said he has three children” because the situation continues to be true.
If I tell you “I live in the United States” (direct speech) then you could tell someone else “She said she lives in the United States” (that’s reported speech) because it is still true.
When the situation is still true, then we don’t need to backshift the verb.
But when the situation is NOT still true, then we DO need to backshift the verb.
Imagine your friend says, “I have a headache.”
- If you immediately go and talk to another friend, you could say, “She said she has a headache,” because the situation is still true
- If you’re talking about that conversation a month after it happened, then you would say, “She said she had a headache,” because it’s no longer true.
No backshift needed when the situation is still in the future
We also don’t need to backshift to the verb when somebody said something about the future, and the event is still in the future.
Here’s an example:
- On Monday, my friend said, “I‘ll call you on Friday.”
- Today is Wednesday. Her call, which she promised, is still in the future. So I would say:
- “She said she‘ll call me on Friday”, because Friday is still in the future from now.
- It is also possible to say, “She said she‘d (she would) call me on Friday.”
- Both of them are correct, so the backshift in this case is optional.
Let’s look at a different situation:
- On Monday, my friend said, “I‘ll call you on Tuesday.”
- Today is Wednesday. Both the conversation and the promised call are in the past from today. So I would say:
- “She said she‘d call me on Tuesday.” I must backshift because the event is NOT still in the future.
Review: Reported Speech, Backshift, & Exceptions
- Normally in reported speech we backshift the verb, we put it in a verb tense that’s a little bit further in the past.
- There are two situations where we don’t need to back shift to the verb, we can simply use the same verb that the person originally used in the conversation:
- when the situation is still true
- when the situation is still in the future
Reported Requests, Orders, and Questions
Those were the rules for reported statements, just regular sentences.
What about reported speech for questions, requests, and orders?
For reported requests, we use “asked (someone) to do something”:
- “Please make a copy of this report.” (direct speech)
- She asked me to make a copy of the report. (reported speech)
For reported orders, we use “told (someone) to do something:”
- “Go to the bank.” (direct speech)
- “He told me to go to the bank.” (reported speech)
The main verb stays in the infinitive with “to”:
- She asked me to make a copy of the report.
She asked me make a copy of the report.
- He told me to go to the bank.
He told me go to the bank.
For yes/no questions, we use “asked if” and “wanted to know if” in reported speech.
- “Are you coming to the party?” (direct)
- He asked if I was coming to the party. (reported)
- “Did you turn off the TV?” (direct)
- She wanted to know if I had turned off the TV.” (reported)
The main verb changes and back shifts according to the rules and exceptions we learned earlier.
Notice that we don’t use do/does/did in the reported question:
She wanted to know did I turn off the TV.
- She wanted to know if I had turned off the TV.
For other questions that are not yes/no questions, we use asked/wanted to know (without “if”):
- “When was the company founded?” (direct)
- She asked when the company was founded.” (reported)
- “What kind of car do you drive?” (direct)
- He wanted to know what kind of car I drive. (reported)
Again, notice that we don’t use do/does/did in reported questions:
- “Where does he work?”
She wanted to know where does he work.
- She wanted to know where he works.
Also, in questions with the verb “to be,” the word order changes in the reported question:
- “Where were you born?”
([to be] + subject)
- He asked where I was born.
(subject + [to be])
He asked where was I born.
I’ve also got a quiz to help you practice reported requests, commands, and questions. We covered a LOT of reported speech rules and exceptions today, so I highly recommend that you do the quizzes to test yourself and make sure you’ve understood!
Reported Speech (Part 2) Quiz
Learn more about reported speech:
If you want to take your English grammar to the next level, then my Advanced English Grammar Course is for you! It will help you master the details of the English language, with clear explanations of essential grammar topics, and lots of practice. I hope to see you inside!
I’ve got one last little exercise for you, and that is to write sentences using reported speech. Think about a conversation you’ve had in the past, and write about it – let’s see you put this into practice right away.