How to Master Spanish Reported Speech and Become a Grammar Ninja
Want to become a ninja?
Not like that kind of ninja who dresses in black and has a superb mastering of the martial arts.
More like a sweater-wearing, extremely-bad-at-judo, grammar ninja.
I know you secretly want to be a grammar ninja as badly as I do.
Well, to achieve that you need to control the most powerful stealth ever created by man: reported speech!
But first, I want to tell you a secret.
I talk to animals, too. A little bird told me you needed help with the Spanish reported speech (also called indirect speech). I asked him if I could be of any help, and the little bird answered that I was the right person for the job.
And now comes the surprise…I’ve just used the reported speech three times in the last paragraph and you probably didn’t even notice it.
Ha! Point for me!
Reported speech is everywhere, and you use it dozens, if not hundreds, of times every day without even realizing it.
The good news is that you can get to be that good in Spanish too. You are some paragraphs away from being a Spanish reported speech ninja yourself!
Don’t you believe me? Give me just 15 minutes of your time and you’ll see how easy it can be.
How to Master Spanish Reported Speech and Become a Grammar Ninja
I know how much time you’ve spent trying to study Spanish grammar. I also know you take breaks from it and watch football matches to relax.
I know…well, I don’t know, but I can guess, that you’ve conquered the greatest of Spanish grammar monsters, the subjunctive, and I take it for granted that ser and estar are your best friends by now.
But, what about the reported speech? Have you been brave enough to confront it?
If you haven’t, don’t despair. I’m going to give you the ultimate guide to mastering it without even a single drop of sweat.
So put your ninja glasses on, sit, relax and enjoy the trip. Unless you prefer to watch a soap opera first. That’s OK too, as long as you come back.
Direct vs. Reported Speech
If you aren’t a grammar ninja yet, you have the right not to know all this obscure and horrid terminology which I deal with every day.
But the fact that you don’t know the name of a grammatical structure doesn’t mean you don’t use it.
Direct and reported speech are undoubtedly two of the most frequently-used grammar notions in every language.
Every single sentence you repeat, believe it or not, is in direct or reported speech. How about that?
When you reproduce exactly what another person has said, you are using direct speech.
Remember those inverted commas you’ve seen thousands of times when reading a dialogue? Yes, quotation marks. It’s precisely them that signal in writing that we’re using direct speech.
Let’s see them in action.
Imagine your friend Daniel says “Estoy muy cansado hoy” (I am very tired today). If you want to repeat what he has said, you have two options.
The first one is what I call the I-am-a-robot option. You repeat exactly what he has said:
Daniel dice: “Estoy muy cansado hoy.” (Daniel says: “I am very tired today”).
Now when writing you can see that those were his exact words because you used quotation marks. If you’re talking, repeating the exact same words can come out as being a little too weird, though it’s perfectly possible to do so.
You’d have to make a little pause after “Daniel dice,” and the repeat like the best of parrots Daniel’s words. You may even help yourself not to feel silly by drawing in the air some invisible inverted commas while you speak.
Doesn’t it seem too much trouble?
The second option you have is much better for my taste: you can use reported speech. As you’ll see later, reported speech is a technique we use to repeat other people’s words without feeling like a robot or a parrot.
When using it you’ll need to make some changes (explained below), but your speech will be fluent and there won’t be any unnecessary pauses, nor flying invisible inverted commas.
Going back to Daniel’s sentence, he said: “Estoy muy cansado hoy.”
If you want to repeat his words by using reported speech, you’d say:
Daniel dice que está muy cansado hoy (Daniel says he is very tired today).
The inverted commas have gone, but so have your weird pauses, your embarrassment and your robotic alter ego.
Much nicer, isn’t it?
Thanks to this post you’ll be able to master this second option, the reported speech, like a native speaker. I’ll give you guidelines that’ll ease your study, and you’ll see that the reported speech isn’t only necessary but also very easy.
But before we go into further detail, let me explain to you the concept of reporting verbs.
Reporting verbs, also known as communication verbs, are those verbs we normally use in order to repeat somebody’s words, either literally (quotation marks) or by means of paraphrasing (reported speech).
There are dozens of reporting verbs in every language, although we tend to use some of them much more often than others.
Decir (to say, to tell) is probably the most common when we’re reporting a statement:
Franko dice: “Quiero ir a Roma” (Franko says: “I want to go to Rome”).
Franko dice que quiere ir a Roma (Franko says he wants to go to Rome).
If we want to report a question, we normally use Preguntar (to ask) or Querer saber (to want to know):
Franko pregunta: “¿Tienes hambre?” (Franko asks: Are you hungry?”)
Franko pregunta si tienes hambre. (Franko asks if you are hungry.)
Franko quiere saber si tienes hambre. (Franko wants to know if you are hungry.)
When reporting a command, the verbs Querer (to want) or Pedir (to ask) are often used:
Franko me pide: “¡Dámelo!” (Franko asks me: “Give it to me!”)
Franko me pide que se lo dé. (Franko asks me to give it to him.)
Franko quiere que se lo dé. (Franko wants me to give it to him.)
As mentioned before, there are many reporting verbs (both in Spanish and English). It would be impossible to include them all in this post, but here you have a list of the most important ones along with examples:
Afirmar (to assert): Afirmó que los coches son peligrosos. (He asserted that cars are dangerous.)
Anunciar (to announce): Anunció que sus resultados serían publicados a las 5:00. (He announced that his results would be published at 5:00.)
Añadir (to add): Añadió que estaba muy contento. (He added that he was very happy.)
Asegurar (to assure): Me aseguró que era seguro. (He assured me it was safe.)
Comentar (to comment): Comentaron que eran muy felices. (They commented that they were very happy.)
Confesar (to confess): La chica confesó que estaba embarazada. (The girl confessed she was pregnant.)
Contestar (to answer): Contestó que no sabía qué hacer. (He answered that he didn’t know what to do.)
Exclamar (to exclaim): Ella exclamó que era muy tarde. (She exclaimed that it was too late.)
Prometer (to promise): Me prometió que no mentiría nunca más. (He promised me that he would never lie ever again.)
Quejarse (to complain): El niño se quejó de que no tenía juguetes. (The boy complained that he did not have any toys.)
Recordar (to remind): Me recordó que era su cumpleaños. (He reminded me that it was his birthday.)
There are of course many others, but these will be enough for you to report almost any statement, question or command.
And now that you know the difference between direct and reported speech and you understand what a reporting verb is, let’s finally see the Spanish reported speech in depth.
Spanish Reported Speech
Spanish reported speech isn’t very different from English reported speech. There are only a couple of things you have to take into account, but apart from that, reported speech shouldn’t be a big issue.
The first thing you have to bear in mind is the word order, but even this is going to be a walk in the park. As well as in English, Spanish reported speech characterizes itself by having a statement word order in every case.
Getting Word Order Right in Reported Speech
It doesn’t matter if you have to report a statement, a command or a question.
Just remember that the word order will always be Subject + Verb + Object:
Statement: Ellos dijeron que ellos (subject) tenían (verb) prisa (object). (They said that they were in a hurry.)
Command: Mi amigo quiere que yo (subject) venda (verb) mi coche (object). (My friend wants me to sell my car.)
Question: Ella pregunta si tú (subject) necesitas (verb) algo (object). (She is asking if you need something.)
Another thing you’ll have to take into account is the presence of que. You may have noticed that almost all the previous examples in the post include que (“that” in English).
Que is going to be your new best friend, because every single reported statement and command in Spanish will include it, even if you omit or don’t need “that” in English.
Have a look:
Antonio dice que le gusta cantar. (Antonio says [that] he likes singing.)
Mi hermano ha dicho que quiere sopa. (My brother has said [that] he wants some soup.)
Bruno me ha pedido que le ayude. (Bruno has asked me to help him.)
Mi vecino exige que me calle. (My neighbour demands [that] I shut up.)
Another thing for you to bear in mind is that questions behave a little “weirdly” in the reported speech.
There are two different kinds of questions, and each of them behaves in a different fashion.
Yes or No Questions
The first kind of question is the Yes or No question.
In this kind of question you no longer need to use que but si (if, whether).
This shouldn’t be difficult for you, because it happens exactly the same way in English:
Loly quiere saber si el paquete ha llegado. (Loly wants to know if the package has arrived.)
Mi hermana me ha preguntado si soy rico. (My sister has asked me if I am rich.)
Question Word Questions
The second kind of questions is the WH- question. If you have a question starting with a question word (qué, quién, cuál, cuándo, cuánto, cómo, dónde…), you’ll have to use that question word instead of si in order to create the reported sentence, again as it happens in English:
Eva quiere saber qué hora es. (Eva wants to know what time it is.)
Susana quiere saber dónde estás. (Susana wants to know where you are.)
However, there’s a little difference between Spanish and English in this kind of questions. When using the verb preguntar (to ask), you can add que just before the question word:
Eva pregunta que qué hora es. (Eva asks what time it is.)
Susana pregunta que dónde estás. (Susana asks where you are.)
Don’t be afraid to write two que together. They aren’t the same word and they don’t have the same function.
The last thing you should take into account when reporting sentences are the changes they undergo.
There are three main groups of changes present in the reported speech. Let’s have a look at them each separately.
Personal Pronouns and Possessives
The first thing you’ll notice when reporting a sentence is that the majority of times the pronouns and possessives from the direct sentence have changed in the reported one. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because it happens exactly the same way in English.
Pronouns and possessives are the first groups of words that need to be changed in the reported sentence so that the meaning of the message isn’t lost or misinterpreted:
1. Ana me pidió: “Dile (tú) a mi hermano que yo no quiero ir.” (Ana asked me: “(You) tell my brother I don’t want to go.”)
Ana me pidió que (yo) le dijera a su hermano que ella no quería ir. (Ana asked me to tell her brother she didn’t want to go.)
2. Kuba pregunta: “¿Dónde está el libro que me dio la hermana de mi madre?” (Kuba asks: “Where is the book my mother’s sister gave me?”).
Kuba pregunta que dónde está el libro que le dio la hermana de su madre. (Kuba asks where the book his mother’s sister gave him is.)
Time and Place Expressions
Another change you’ll have to take into account is the one occurring in time and place expressions. This is also something that happens in English, so it’ll be very easy for you.
The main time and place expressions that need to be changed in the reported speech are:
Hoy (today) → Ese día /Aquel día (that day):
John dijo: “Hoy es mi cumpleaños.” (John said: “Today is my birthday.”)
John dijo que ese día era su cumpleaños. (John said that day was his birthday.)
Ahora (now) → Entonces (then):
Mi primo dijo: “Lo quiero ahora.“ (My cousin said: “I want it now.“)
Mi primo dijo que lo quería entonces. (My cousin said he wanted it then.)
Mañana (tomorrow) → Al día siguiente (the next / the following day):
Tú dijiste: “Vendré mañana.“ (You said: ” I will come tomorrow.“)
Tú dijiste que vendrías al día siguiente. (You said you would come the following day.)
Ayer (yesterday) → El día anterior (the previous day / the day before):
Carmen dijo: “Lo encontré ayer.“ (Carmen said: “I found it yesterday.“)
Carmen dijo que lo había encontrado el día anterior. (Carmen said she had found it the day before.)
La semana / el mes / el año que viene… (next week / month / year…) → A la semana / al mes / al año siguiente… (the following week / month / year…):
Pedro dijo: “Llegaré la semana que viene.“ (Pedro said: “I will arrive next week.“)
Pedro dijo que llegaría a la semana siguiente. (Pedro said he would arrive the following week.)
La semana / el mes / el año pasado… (last week / month / year…) → La semana / el mes / el año anterior… (the previous week / month / year…):
José dijo: “Me casé la semana pasada.“ (José said: “I got married last week.“)
José dijo que se había casado la semana anterior. (José said he had gotten married the previous week.)
Hace + period of time (period of time + ago) –> Hacía + period of time or Period of time + antes (period of time + before):
Loly dijo: “La tienda cerró hace 5 minutos.” (Loly said: “The shop closed 5 minutes ago.“)
Loly dijo que la tienda había cerrado hacía 5 minutos / 5 minutos antes. (Loly said the shop had closed 5 minutes before.)
Aquí (here) → Ahí /Allí (there):
Papá dijo: “Yo trabajo aquí“ (Dad said: “I work here.“)
Papá dijo que él trabajaba allí. (Dad said he worked there.)
There’s a group of words that I’d like to include in this section. They’re neither time nor place expressions, but they imply distance with the speaker:
Este / Esta (this) → Ese / Esa or Aquel / Aquella (that):
Matt dijo: “Me gusta este libro.” (Matt said: “I like this book.”)
Matt dijo que le gustaba aquel libro. (Matt said he liked that book.)
Estos / Estas (these) → Esos / Esas or Aquellos / Aquellas (those):
Mamá dijo: “Quiero estos pantalones.” (Mum said: “I want these trousers.”)
Mamá dijo que quería esos pantalones. (Mum said she wanted those trousers.)
Undoubtedly, the most troublesome part of the reported speech is the fact that verbs change their tenses.
The good news is that these changes don’t happen all the time, and you have almost identical changes in English.
But when do we need to make changes in verb tenses? How do we know?
The only thing you have to bear in mind here is the reporting verb. Yes, that little friend present at the beginning of every reported sentence which we studied before.
The rule is very straightforward and comes in two parts:
1. If the reporting verb is in the present simple or the present perfect tense, you DON’T have to change any verb tenses unless you have a command.
2. If the reporting verb is in the preterite, the imperfect or the past perfect tense (pluscuamperfecto), you DO need to make changes.
Have a look at the following examples. The reporting verbs (in bold) are in the present simple or the present perfect, so there are no verb changes in the reported sentences:
1. Franko dice: “Tengo (present simple) hambre.” (Franko says: “I am hungry.”)
Franko dice que tiene (present simple) hambre. (Franko says he is hungry.)
2. Franko ha dicho: “Iré (future simple) a España.” (Franko has said: “I will go to Spain.”)
Franko ha dicho que irá (future simple) a España. (Franko has said he will go to Spain.)
3. Franko pregunta: “¿Qué hora era (imperfect)?” (Franko asks: “What time it was?”)
Franko pregunta que qué hora era (imperfect). (Franko asks what time it was.)
As stated before, when you have a command you do need to make changes even when the reporting verb is in the present or the present perfect tense.
The imperative changes into the present subjunctive:
1. Franko me pide: “Dame agua.” (Franko asks me: “Give me water.”)
Franko me pide que le dé agua. (Franko asks me to give him water.)
2. Franko ha dicho: “Ten cuidado.” (Franko has said: “Be careful.”)
Franko ha dicho que tenga cuidado. (Franko has said that I should be careful.)
In those sentences where the reporting verb appears in a past tense, you need to make verb tense changes in the reported fragment. These changes are almost identical to those in English, but here you have a list with the most important ones just for your convenience:
Present Simple → Imperfect
Franko dijo: “No puedo dormir.” (Franko said: “I can’t sleep.”)
Franko dijo que no podía dormir. (Franko said he couldn’t sleep.)
Preterite → Pluscuamperfecto
Franko dijo: “Ayer compré una bici.” (Franko said: “I bought a bike yesterday.”)
Franko dijo que había comprado una bici el día anterior. (Franko said he had bought a bike the day before.)
Future Simple (will) → Conditional Simple (would)
Franko dijo: “Llegaré tarde.” (Franko said: “I will arrive late.”)
Franko dijo que llegaría tarde. (Franko said he would arrive late.)
In those sentences where the verb is in the imperfect, conditional or past perfect (pluscuamperfecto) there are no tense changes:
Franko dijo: “La casa era muy bonita.” (Franko said: “The house was very beautiful.”)
Franko dijo que la casa era muy bonita. (Franko said the house was very beautiful.)
Franko dijo: “Me gustaría comer pizza.” (Franko said: “I would like to eat pizza.”)
Franko dijo que le gustaría comer pizza. (Franko said he would like to eat pizza.)
Franko dijo: “A las 3 ella ya había llegado“ (Franko said: “She had already arrived at 3”).
Franko dijo que a las 3 ella ya había llegado (Franko said she had already arrived at 3).
As in when the reporting verb was in a present tense, commands with the reporting verb in the past tense also undergo changes. In this case, the imperative changes into imperfect subjunctive:
1. Franko me dijo: “Bebe agua.” (Franko told me: “Drink water.”)
Franko me dijo que bebiera agua. (Franko told me to drink water.)
2. Franko le dijo: “Vuelve a casa.” (Franko told her: “Come back home.”)
Franko le dijo que volviera a casa. (Franko told her to come back home.)
And that’s all!
As you can see, both Spanish and English reported speeches are very similar.
Just remember the few rules I have taught you in this post and you’ll have no problem at all.
So…are you feeling like a grammar ninja yet?
If not, get out there and start practicing your stealthy Spanish moves!