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Overview of Reported Speech

We use reported speech when we want to tell somebody what another person, newspaper, book, or TV show, or something else said.

We will cover everything you need to know about reported speech in this lesson, but we will have different lessons that give more details and examples about some of these topics.

When we write in English, we use quotation marks (").
  • Jason said, "I like pizza."
When we speak, we report speech like this.
  • Jason said that he likes pizza.
  • Jason said that he liked pizza.
Here are some rules and things to remember.

1. We backshift the verb, but if it is still true then it is not always necessary. Many grammar books say that we should always backshift these verbs, but native speakers do not always do that.

If the situation is the same, then you do not need to change the verb. However, if the situation has changed then we should change the verb.
  • "Bill's Pizza is good."
Jason said this 2 years ago and now Bill's Pizza shop is out of business or gone. In this case, we should definitely backshift and switch the verb to the past tense.
  • Jason said that Bill's Pizza was good.
However, if Bill's pizza shop is still open and it is still good, then we can backshift the verb or we can keep it the same.
  • Jason said that Bill's Pizza is good.
  • Jason said that Bill's Pizza was good.
Here is one more example of when we do not need to backshift the verb.

"Germany is a beautiful country."
Tim said that Germany is a beautiful country.

As far as we know, that situation has not changed. Germany is still a beautiful country just like when Tim said that.

2. If you need to change the verb from present to past tense (backshift), then here is how you do it.

am/is wasare were
do/does didwill would
can couldhave had

Just change regular verbs to the past tense form.

need neededsee sawrun ran

Some modals don't backshift or change. Here is a list of the modals that you do not need to change.

wouldcouldmight
shouldought tomust have
could havewould haveshould have

Direct SpeechReported Speech
"It is good," said Karen.She said that it was good.
"They are nice," said Ben.Ben said that they were nice.
"I do Yoga," said Karen.Karen said she did yoga.
"I will help," said Greg.Greg said that he would help.
"He can swim." I said that he could swim.
"We have a dog," said Karen.Karen said that they had a dog.
"I need help," said Kim.Kim said that she needed help.
"I see a ghost right now," said Bill.Bill said he saw a ghost yesterday.
"I run every day," said Vince.Vince said that he ran every day.
"I would go," said Bill.Bill said that he would go.
"We should leave," said Jill.Jill said we should leave.
"I would have gone if I had time," said Mark.Mark said that he would have gone if he had had time.

Note: In the last example, I didn't change "would have", but I changed the verb "had" from past tense to past perfect tense. I did this to emphasize that it happened in the past.

Remember that if what the person said is still true and the situation has not changed, then you do not need to change the verb. It is your decision.

2. If the direct speech is already in the past tense, then we usually do not change the verb (backshift). However, we can change the past tense to past perfect if we want to emphasize that it happened or was said in the past. Let's look at an example.
  • "I ate lobster last week," said Tim.
We usually do not change the verb.
  • Tim said that he ate lobster last week.
We can use the past perfect, but it is not necessary and many native speakers do not do this unless they are emphasizing.
  • Tim said that he had eaten lobster last week.
3. Always backshift if something turns out to be false.

Karen said, "Bill is in the hospital."

But later that day, I am walking down the street and I see Bill. Then, I tell Bill that Karen said that you were in the hospital.

I have to use "were" not "are" because what Karen said was not true.

4. "Tell" and "say" have the same meaning, but we use "tell + person/pronoun".
  • I told her that it was good.
  • She told me that she couldn't come to the party.
  • We will tell everybody that you said it was bad.
We usually use "say" when we are just reporting what was said.
  • The news said that it would rain today, but the weather is perfect.
  • He said he likes you.
  • We said that we wouldn't do it.
It is possible to use "say something to somebody"
  • I said goodbye to my friends.
  • She said hello to everyone.
  • What did you say to him?
5. Use "ask" for reported questions. Do not use "say" and "tell" for questions. These do not end in question marks. Pay attention to the word order. We use the sentence word order. We do not use question word order.

Use "ask + person+ if/whether" for yes/no questions.
  • "Do you like cheese?"
    She asked me if I liked cheese?

  • "Have you been to China?"
    I asked her if she had been to China.

  • "Did he leave?"
    She asked them if he left.
Use "ask + person + question word" for all other questions.
  • "What is your name?"
    She asked me what my name is.

  • "When does the store close?"
    I asked here when the store closes.

  • "How are you?"
    She asked him how he was.
6. We use "say to + verb" or "tell + person + to + verb" for imperatives.
  • "Clean up"
    He said to clean up.

  • "Be quiet."
    The teacher told us to be quiet.

  • "Come here"
    They told me to come here.
Use "...not to + verb" for a negative imperative.
  • "Don't do that."
    He said not to do that.

  • "Do not eat it."
    She told us not to eat it.
However, it is common to hear native speakers use "to not + verb".
  • He said to not go.
7. "That" is optional in reported speech.
  • Ben said that he would come tonight.
    (=Ben said he would come tonight.)
8. We can replace the words "say", "tell", and "ask" with words that have similar meanings. These words usually give more detail about how something was said.

There are many synonyms for these words, but here is a list of the words that you must know if you want to communicate effectively in English.

For example, instead of saying,
  • He said that he cheated on the test.
We can give more details by saying:
  • He whispered that he cheated on the test.
  • He confessed that he cheated on the test.
  • He shouted that he cheated on the test.
Make sure that you understand this English grammar well. It is important to know if you want to speak English fluently. If need to study this more, then check out the following lessons for more details.

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