He Said, She Said: Mastering English Reported Speech (Direct and Indirect)
Do you like to tell stories?
Do you enjoy gossiping about which celebrities are dating each other?
Do you chat with your friends about your other friends?
Or do you just enjoy reading books and magazines?
If you said “yes” to any of the above questions, you need to learn English reported speech.
“Reported speech” might sound fancy, but it isn’t that complicated.
It’s just how you talk about what someone said.
Luckily, it’s pretty simple to learn the basics in English.
Let’s get started.
Real-world Resources for Practicing Reported Speech
Before we go over what reported speech is and how exactly it works, let’s look at where you can find and learn about it in the real world.
Novels and short stories
One of the most common uses for reported speech is in fiction. You’ll find plenty of reported speech in novels and short stories. Look for books that have long sections of text with dialogue marked by quotation marks (“…”). Once you understand the different kinds of reported speech, you can look for it in your reading and use it in your own writing.
Writing your own stories is a great way to get even better at understanding reported speech.
Celebrity profiles, which you can find in print magazines and online, can help you find and practice reported speech, too. Celebrity profiles are stories that focus on a famous person. They often include some kind of interview. The writer will usually spend some time describing the person and then mention things that they say; this is when they use reported speech.
Because many of these profiles are written in the present tense, they can help you get used to the basics of reported speech without having to worry too much about different verb tenses.
Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced English learner, celebrity profiles are a fun way to master reported speech.
He Said, She Said: Mastering English Reported Speech (Direct and Indirect)
How to Report Direct Speech
Direct speech refers to the exact words that a person says. You can “report” direct speech in a few different ways.
To see how this works, let’s pretend that I (Elisabeth) told some people that I liked green onions.
Here are some different ways that those people could explain what I said:
“I like green onions,” Elisabeth said.
“I like green onions,” she told me. — In this sentence, we replace my name (Elisabeth) with the pronoun she.
“I like green onions,” Elisabeth explained.
In all of these examples, the part that was said is between quotation marks and is followed by a noun (“she” or “Elisabeth”) and a verb. Each of these verbs (“to say,” “to tell [someone],” “to explain”) are ways to describe someone talking. You can use any verb that refers to speech in this way.
You can also put the noun and verb before what was said.
Elisabeth said, “I like spaghetti.”
She replied, “I like spaghetti.”
Elisabeth clarified, “I like spaghetti.”
She yelled, “No, I don’t like green onions, I like spaghetti!”
The examples above would be much more likely to be said out loud than the first set of examples.
Here’s a conversation that might happen between two people:
– Did you ask her if she liked coffee?
– Yeah, I asked her.
– What did she say?
– She said, “Yeah, I like coffee.”
Usually, reporting of direct speech is something you see in writing. It doesn’t happen as often when people are talking to each other. However, if you do use it in conversation, it sounds more natural to put the noun and verb before the direct quote, like in the example above.
You can also use reported speech when the speech is a question. Nothing really changes in this case, except that the verbs you use might be different.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“Did you ask her if she likes coffee?” he wondered.
Direct reported speech often happens in the past. However, there are all kinds of stories, including journalism pieces, profiles and fiction, where you might see speech reported in the present as well. This is sometimes done when the author of the piece wants you to feel that you’re experiencing events in the present moment.
For example, a profile of Kristen Stewart in Vanity Fair has a funny moment that describes how the actress isn’t a very good swimmer:
“I don’t want to enter the water, ever,” she says. “If everyone’s going in the ocean, I’m like, No.”
Here, the speech is reported as though it’s in the present tense (“she says”) instead of in the past (“she said”).
(Note that here there’s actually an example of direct speech inside of direct speech: I’m like, “No.”)
In writing of all kinds, direct reported speech is often split into two or more parts, as it is above.
Here’s an example from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” where the speech is even more split up:
“I won’t indeed!” said Alice, in a great hurry to change the subject of conversation. “Are you—are you fond—of—of dogs?” The Mouse did not answer, so Alice went on eagerly: “There is such a nice little dog near our house I should like to show you!”
How to Report Indirect Speech
Reporting indirect speech is what happens when you explain what someone said without using their exact words.
Let’s start with an example of direct reported speech like those used above.
Elisabeth said, “I like coffee.”
As indirect reported speech, it looks like this:
Elisabeth said she liked coffee.
You can see that the subject (“I”) has been changed to “she,” to show who is being spoken about. If I’m reporting the direct speech of someone else, and this person says “I,” I’d repeat their sentence exactly as they said it. If I’m reporting this person’s speech indirectly to someone else, however, I’d speak about them in the third person—using “she,” “he” or “they.”
You may also notice that the tense changes here: If “I like coffee” is what she said, this can become “She liked coffee” in indirect speech.
However, you might just as often hear someone say something like, “She said she likes coffee.” This still usually makes sense if you’re talking about something that’s continuing to happen. Since people’s likes and preferences tend to change over time and not right away, it makes sense to keep them in the present tense.
Indirect speech often uses the word “that” before what was said:
She said that she liked coffee.
There’s no real difference between “She said she liked coffee” and “She said that she liked coffee.” However, using “that” can help make the different parts of the sentence clearer.
Let’s look at a few other examples:
I said I was going outside today.
They told me that they wanted to order pizza.
He mentioned it was raining.
She said that her father was coming over for dinner.
You can see an example of reporting indirect speech in the funny video “Cell Phone Crashing“. In this video, a traveler in an airport sits down next to another traveler talking on his cell phone. The first traveler pretends to be talking to someone on his phone, but he appears to be responding to the second traveler’s conversation, which leads to this exchange:
– “Are you answering what I’m saying?”
– “No, no… I’m on the phone with somebody, sorry. I don’t mean to be rude.” [Direct speech]
– “What was that?”
– “I just said I was on the phone with somebody.” [Indirectly reporting his own speech]
Reporting Questions in Indirect Speech
When reporting questions in indirect speech, you can use words like “whether” or “if” with verbs that show questioning, such as “to ask” or “to wonder.”
Direct speech: She asked, “Is that a new restaurant?”
Indirect speech: She asked if that was a new restaurant.
In any case where you’re reporting a question, you can say that someone was “wondering” or “wanted to know” something. Notice that these verbs don’t directly show that someone asked a question. They don’t describe an action that happened at a single point in time. But you can usually assume that someone was wondering or wanted to know what they asked.
Direct speech: She asked, “Is that a new restaurant?”
Indirect speech: She was wondering if that was a new restaurant.
Indirect speech: She wanted to know whether that was a new restaurant.
How to Use Tenses in Indirect Reported Speech
It can be tricky to know how to use tenses when reporting indirect speech. Let’s break it down, tense by tense.
Sometimes, indirect speech “backshifts,” or moves one tense further back into the past. We already saw this in the example from above:
She said, “I like coffee.”
She said she liked coffee.
Also as mentioned above, backshifting doesn’t always happen. This might seem confusing, but it isn’t that difficult to understand once you start using reported speech regularly.
What tense you use in indirect reported speech often just depends on when what you’re reporting happened or was true.
Let’s look at some examples of how direct speech in certain tenses commonly changes (or doesn’t) when it’s reported as indirect speech.
To learn about all the English tenses (or for a quick review), check out this post.
Direct speech: I said, “I play video games.”
Indirect speech: I said that I played video games. (simple past)
OR I said that I play video games. (simple present)
Backshifting into the past or staying in the present here can change the meaning slightly. If you use the first example, it’s unclear whether or not you still play video games; all we know is that you said you played them in the past.
If you use the second example, though, you probably still play video games (unless you were lying for some reason).
However, the difference in meaning is so small, you can use either one and you won’t have a problem.
Direct speech: I said, “I’m playing video games.”
Indirect speech: I said that I was playing video games. (past continuous)
OR I said that I’m playing video games. (present continuous)
In this case, you’d likely use the first example if you were telling a story about something that happened in the past.
You could use the second example to repeat or stress what you just said. For example:
– Hey, want to go for a walk?
– No, I’m playing video games.
– But it’s such a nice day!
– I said that I’m playing video games!
Direct speech: Marie said, “I have read that book.”
Indirect speech: Marie said that she had read that book. (past perfect)
OR Marie said that she has read that book. (present perfect)
The past perfect is used a lot in writing and other kinds of narration. This is because it helps point out an exact moment in time when something was true.
The past perfect isn’t quite as useful in conversation, where people are usually more interested in what’s true now. So, in a lot of cases, people would use the second example above when speaking.
Present Perfect Continuous
Direct speech: She said, “I have been watching that show.”
Indirect speech: She said that she had been watching that show. (past perfect continuous)
OR She said that she has been watching that show. (present perfect continuous)
These examples are similar to the others above. You could use the first example whether or not this person was still watching the show, but if you used the second example, it’d probably seem like you either knew or guessed that she was still watching it.
Direct speech: You told me, “I charged my phone.”
Indirect speech: You told me that you had charged your phone. (past perfect)
OR You told me that you charged your phone. (simple past)
Here, most people would probably just use the second example, because it’s simpler, and gets across the same meaning.
Direct speech: You told me, “I was charging my phone.”
Indirect speech: You told me that you had been charging your phone. (past perfect continuous)
OR You told me that you were charging your phone. (past continuous)
Here, the difference is between whether you had been charging your phone before or were charging your phone at the time. However, a lot of people would still use the second example in either situation.
Direct speech: They explained, “We had bathed the cat on Wednesday.”
Indirect speech: They explained that they had bathed the cat on Wednesday. (past perfect)
Once we start reporting the past perfect tenses, we don’t backshift because there are no tenses to backshift to.
So in this case, it’s simple. The tense stays exactly as is. However, many people might simplify even more and use the simple past, saying, “They explained that they bathed the cat on Wednesday.”
Past Perfect Continuous
Direct speech: They said, “The cat had been going outside and getting dirty for a long time!”
Indirect speech: They said that the cat had been going outside and getting dirty for a long time. (past perfect continuous)
Again, we don’t shift the tense back here; we leave it like it is. And again, a lot of people would report this speech as, “They said the cat was going outside and getting dirty for a long time.” It’s just a simpler way to say almost the same thing.
Direct speech: I told you, “I will be here no matter what.”
Indirect speech: I told you that I would be here no matter what. (present conditional)
At this point, we don’t just have to think about tenses, but grammatical mood, too. However, the idea is still pretty simple. We use the conditional (with “would”) to show that at the time the words were spoken, the future was uncertain.
In this case, you could also say, “I told you that I will be here no matter what,” but only if you “being here” is still something that you expect to happen in the future.
What matters here is what’s intended. Since this example shows a person reporting their own speech, it’s more likely that they’d want to stress the truth of their own intention, and so they might be more likely to use “will” than “would.”
But if you were reporting someone else’s words, you might be more likely to say something like, “She told me that she would be here no matter what.”
Direct speech: I said, “I’ll be waiting for your call.”
Indirect speech: I said that I would be waiting for your call. (conditional continuous)
These are similar to the above examples, but apply to a continuous or ongoing action.
Direct speech: She said, “I will have learned a lot about myself.”
Indirect speech: She said that she would have learned a lot about herself. (conditional perfect)
OR She said that she will have learned a lot about herself. (future perfect)
In this case, using the conditional (as in the first example) suggests that maybe a certain event didn’t happen, or something didn’t turn out as expected.
However, that might not always be the case, especially if this was a sentence that was written in an article or a work of fiction. The second example, however, suggests that the future that’s being talked about still hasn’t happened yet.
Future Perfect Continuous
Direct speech: She said, “By next Tuesday, I will have been staying inside every day for the past month.”
Indirect speech: She said that by next Tuesday, she would have been staying inside every day for the past month. (perfect continuous conditional)
OR She said that by next Tuesday, she will have been staying inside every day for the past month. (past perfect continuous)
Again, in this case, the first example might suggest that the event didn’t happen. Maybe the person didn’t stay inside until next Tuesday! However, this could also just be a way of explaining that at the time she said this in the past, it was uncertain whether she really would stay inside for as long as she thought.
The second example, on the other hand, would only be used if next Tuesday hadn’t happened yet.
While the above may seem really complicated, it isn’t that difficult to start using reported speech.
Mastering it may be a little difficult, but the truth is that many, many people who speak English as a first language struggle with it, too!
Reported speech is flexible, and even if you make mistakes, there’s a good chance that no one will notice.
Plus, reported speech may be the English grammar subject that’s the most fun to study.
You can read more magazines, watch more TV, gossip more with your friends—and be learning the whole time.
Elisabeth Cook is a freelance writer who actually likes both green onions and spaghetti. She says that you can find her on Twitter, (@CooksChicken) where she may share even more of her opinions about food and language.