Reported Speech in English

In English, there are two types of speech: direct and indirect, also known as reported. Direct speech is when you say exactly what someone else said. Quotes are an example of this:

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

– Nelson Mandela

Another form: He said, “I am going to go home now.”

Direct speech uses quotation marks (“) that surround the words the other person wrote or spoke. On the other hand, reported speech is when you paraphrase what someone else says. It is slightly more complicated than direct speech but it is used very often in English, especially when speaking.

Before we get look at indirect speech, we need to make one thing clear: there are two sets of verbs in an indirect speech sentence. The first set (which is often just one verb) is called the ‘reporting verb’. This is where the speaker of the sentence reports on the original person who spoke. For example: He said, “I am going home”. The the verb in bold is the reporting verb.

The second set of verbs (can be multiple, depending on what the person said) are the original verbs that the original person said. In the previous example the original verbs are: am going. If you are unfamiliar with the different forms of the past and present tenses, please read this article before continuing with this article.

Present tense reported speech

When English teachers refer to the present tense in reported speech, we mean that the reporting verb is in the present tense. Fortunately for English learners, this is the easier of the two tenses to learn with indirect speech. This is because the indirect verbs do not change tense (meaning the tense that the first person said is also used by the second person). For example:

Original sentence: “I like ice cream.”

Reported speech: She says (that) she likes ice cream.

In this example the original verb is given in the present simple. We can see that the reported verb (in bold) is in the same tense as it was giving in the original sentence: present simple.

The same is true to any tense; they always stay the same in reported speech. For example:

Original sentence: “I was going to the bank when I met a friend.”

Reported Speech: He says (that) he was going to the bank when he met a friend.

Past Tense

The past tense is where things become more tricky. Reported in speech in the past tense is when the reporting verb (tell, say, ask, etc.) is in the past tense.

But why would you change what someone said? Why not say exactly what the person said originally? The reason is because you may not be sure anymore if what they said is still true. Let’s look at some examples.

Present Simple

Original sentence: “I like ice cream.”

Reported speech option #1: She said (that) she likes ice cream.

Reported speech option #2: She said (that) she liked ice cream.

What is the difference between option #1 and option #2? If you use option #1, you are sure that “she” still likes ice cream. If you use option #2, the statement was true when the person said it (in this case, that she likes ice cream) but you are not sure if it is still true. Maybe she doesn’t like ice cream anymore.

When you change the tense, you take “one step backwards in the past”. Here we can see that the present simple (likes) was changed to the past simple (liked). We moved one time into the past.

In short: if you leave the tense as it was reported, you are sure that it is still true. If you change it, you are not sure whether it is still true.

Present continuous / progressive

Original sentence: “I am living in London.”

Reported speech option #1: She said (that) she is living in London.

Reported speech option #2: She said (that) she was living in London.

Here we can see the same options; either the reported speech uses the same tense (is living) if the reporter is sure that the information is still correct or the tense one step in the past (is living > was living, present continuous to past continuous) if they are unsure whether it is still true.

Present perfect

Original sentence: I have lived in London.

Reported speech option #1: She said (that) she has lived in London.

Reported speech option #2: She said (that) she had lived in London.

The same principles hold true for the present perfect; the reported speech option that stays in the same tense is used when the person reporting is sure that the original statement is still true. If you have any doubt then the second option, where we shift one step into the past, is the one that should be used.

Present perfect continuous

Original sentence: I have been living in London since 2012.

Reported speech option #1: She said (that) she has been living in London since 2012.

Reported speech option #2: She said (that) she had been living in London since 2012.

Past simple

For reported speech in the past simple, the reported speech usually changes into the past perfect:

Original sentence: I went home.

Reported speech option #1: She said (that) she went home.

Reported speech option #2: She said (that) she had gone home.

Past progressive / continuous

How can we step farther into the past from the past progressive? The perfect aspect is a step back within the same tense, so we use the past perfect progressive:

Original sentence: I was going to the bank when…

Reported speech option #1: She said (that) she was going to the bank when…

Reported speech option #2: She said (that) she had been going to the bank when…

Past perfect

Once we are at the past perfect tense, there is no way to go back any farther in time. This makes indirect speech much easier:

Original sentence: I had gone home when…

Reported speech: She said (that) she had gone home when…

Past perfect continuous

The same is also true for the past perfect continuous: once we are at this tense, there is no way to go any further back:

Original sentence: I had been working there when…

Reported speech: She said (that) she had been working there when…

Reporting verbs and following prepositions

Common reporting verbs that use the preposition ‘that’ afterwards, which can also be omitted: add, admit, agree, announce, answer, argue, boast, claim, comment, complain, confirm, consider, deny, doubt, estimate,explain, fear, feel, insist, mention, observe, persuade, propose, remark, remember, repeat, reply, report, reveal, say, state, suggest, suppose, tell, think, understand, warn

Common reporting verbs that can also use the preposition ‘if/whether’ afterwards: ask, know, remember, say, see


If you liked this post, why not check out my Teaching English page for more articles. 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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