Reported Speech – He said, she said

Sometimes when you are telling a story or relaying information someone told you, you don’t necessarily want to say absolutely everything in exactly the same way as it was told to you (i.e. direct speech). Sometimes you simply can’t remember and other times exactly what was said was important. So what do you do instead? The answer is reported speech.

Reported speech is also known as indirect speech. This is when you paraphrase what someone else says. So that’s it! We’re done, right? Not so.

Before we go any farther, there is something that needs to be made clear. A direct quote looks like this:

Original quote: I like ice cream.

Direct speech: She said, “I like ice cream.”

A direct quote has quotation marks (” or ‘) while reported speech does not. You will also see that it also has two verbs: the one that the original person said, and the word “said” (in this case), which is called the “reporting verb”. We also use a reporting verb in reported speech.

Reported speech in the present

Reported speech comes in two varieties: reported speech in the present and reported speech in the past. What this means is that the reporting verb (e.g. “to say”) is in the present tense. For example:

Original quote: I am going to see you there.

Reported speech: She says she is going to see us there.

In this example I have put the reporting verb in red. Notice it is in the present tense (hence reported speech in the present), meaning that it is being reported at the same time (or directly thereafter). Notice also that the pronouns have been changed since the person who is speaking as also changed.

Why would you want to report something at the same time as it is being said? Imagine you are on the telephone with someone and you are relaying what they say to someone else. For example:

Person with you: “What time does she say she will be there?”
Person on telephone: “I’ll be there at 9 pm.”

You (to person with you): “She says she will be there at 9 pm.”

For reported speech in the present, there is no change in what is said by the person; specifically I am referring to the tense of the main verb the original person said. There are no changes for any of the present tenses:

“She is going to the mall”

She says (that) she is going to the mall.

“I don’t like green eggs and ham.”
He says (that) he doesn’t like green eggs and ham.

“She has seen a ghost!”
She says (that) she has seen a ghost.

She has been going to yoga for 4 years now.
She says she has been going to yoga for 4 years now.

Reported speech in the past

Whereas nothing changed in reported speech in the present, things can begin to change in the past. But why would it change in the past? The thing is that, when you are reporting something from the past, you know that when it was said, it was true. Is it still true now? That is what makes things more complicated. If something has changed, this leads to a change in how you would report it. Let’s look at an example:

She likes ice cream.
Option 1: She said she likes ice cream.

Option 2: She said she liked ice cream.

What is the difference between options 1 and 2?

In option 1, we see there is no change in the verb that is being reported (the one in bold). In this option, no matter how long ago it was, you are sure that what you are reporting is still true. This would mean that the person liked ice cream at the time and still likes ice cream. Option 2 means that something might have changed since that time. Perhaps you lost contact with the original person. You are no longer sure if she still likes ice cream but she did at one point, so you could say option 2. It was definitely true then, so you can change it to the past tense.

What about the other present tenses?

  • Present Continuous: “I am living in London.”
    • She said (that) she is living in London. (present continuous)
      • Nothing has changed
    • She said (that) she was living in London. (past continuous)
      • Maybe it has changed
  • Present Perfect: “I have not seen him”
    • She said (that) she has not seen him. (present perfect)
      • Nothing has changed
    • She said (that) she had not seen him. (past perfect)
      • Maybe she has seen him since
  • Present perfect continuous: “I have been going to yoga for 4 years.”
    • She said (that) she has been going to yoga for 4 years.
      • Nothing has changed
    • She said (that) she had been going to yoga for 4 years.
      • Maybe she has stopped going.

Notice that there is a general trend: if you are sure it is still true, leave it alone. If you are not sure if it is still true, the verb being reported (e.g. is living) is moved one step into the past (i.e. is living -> was living). The present simple becomes the past simple, the present continuous becomes the past continuous, the present perfect becomes the past perfect and the present perfect continuous becomes the past perfect continuous. Seems easy right? But what happens if you are reporting on something that is already in the past?

  • Past Simple: “I bought a car.”
    • He said (that) he bought a car. (past simple – no change)
      • The action is finished and doesn’t matter for the present
    • He said (that) he had bought a car. (past perfect)
      • Probably this has some bearing on the present or story
  • Past Continuous: I was walking along the street …
    • She said (that) she had been walking along the street… (past perfect continuous)
  • Past Perfect: I had taken English lessons before
    • She said (that) she had taken English lessons before (past perfect – impossible to go further back)
  • Past perfect continuous: I had been going to yoga for 4 years.
    • She said (that) she had been going to yoga for 4 years. (past perfect continuous – impossible to go further back)

As you can see here, it isn’t as simple as in the present. However, we still follow the rule of “one step backwards”. In this case, rather than stepping from the present to the past, we have to go from the past to further in the past, which is why we use the perfect tenses more often, which is the reason it exists (you can review the perfect tenses here).

Are modal verbs treated the same way? The answer is yes but not necessarily in the way you think. For reporting in the present tense, there is no change (as we saw above). The only difference is in the past tense:

  • I will see you later -> She said (that) she would see me later. (present to past)
  • I would help … -> He said (that) he would help. (stays the same)
  • I can speak English -> He said (that) he could speak English. (present to past)
  • I could help you -> He said (that) he could help you. (stays the same)
  • I shall come late -> He said (that) he would come late (shall -> would)
  • You should call her -> They said (that) you should call her (stays the same)
  • I may be late -> He said (that) he might be late (present to past)
  • I might be late -> He said (that) he might be late (stays the same)
  • I must stay -> He said (that) he had to stay (stays in past)

As you see here, these generally follow a pattern: those verbs in the present change to their past forms and those already in a past form have to remain there. The one exception is “shall”, which becomes “would”. Why would this happen? The reason is that “shall” can be used to talk about the future, just like “will”. When you use the word “should” in this way, it becomes a recommendation, not talking about the future. This is why it becomes “would”, not “should”.

Questions and commands

When you report either questions or commands, they are no longer in the command or question forms. Let’s look at some examples:

Do you like science?

She asked if you like science.

Notice here that we add the word “if” (or you can use “whether”) and the reporting verb is “to ask”. You can also use other verbs that mean the same thing, such as “to enquire” or “to query”.

Sit down!

She told me to sit down.

Notice here that we change the command form “sit” to the infinitive “to sit”. It also comes after the reporting verb “to tell” in the past.

A summary

Here is a quick summary of everything in table form:

Direct TenseIndirect TenseDirect ModalIndirect Modal
Present SimplePresent Simple ORPast Simplewillwould
Present PerfectPast Perfectwouldwould
Present ContinuousPast Continuouscancould
Present Perfect ContinuousPast Perfect Continuouscouldcould
Past SimplePast Simple OR Past PerfectshallShould (obligation)/Would (past)
Past PerfectPast Perfectshouldshould
Past ContinuousPast Perfect Continuousmaymight
Past Perfect ContinuousPast Perfect Continuousmightmight
  mustMust have / had to

For teachers (also suitable for online teaching)

This topic is generally for higher level (B2 or so) students, especially when talking about reported speech in the past. A good way to start a class to set up for this lesson is to pair the students and have them talk about anything interesting they have done recently (or their routine over the past few weeks). After introducing reported speech, pair them up again (new pairs) and have them report on what their original partner told them.

For more advanced students, you can use a real-life video and have the students report to each other (or the class as a whole) as to what they heard. Here is an example of a video I have used in the past from the show QI (Quite Interesting).

QI | La Bastille

Another good way to practice reported speech is to use music in the classroom, especially a song that tells a story. For the song, have the student determine if it is direct or reported (indirect) speech. After listening to the song, have the students change the text from one form to another (reported to direct or vice versa). A song that I have used is “Simple Plan” by Lynyrd Skynyrd:

Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd – Lyrics HD

If your students are interested in film (movies), you can also play a clip from a film and have the students report to each other/the whole class. One that usually goes down well is the Lord of the Rings. The council scene from the Fellowship of the Ring is the one I have used very successfully in class:

LOTR The Fellowship of the Ring – Extended Edition – The Council of Elrond Part 1
What did each character say? What do they think should be done?

If you liked this post, why not check out my Learning English page for more articles. More specialised English topics can also be found under posts such as Doublets (and Triplets) in English or The Basic Characteristics of Scientific Language.

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