Published 13th January 2017

One of the trickier aspects of English grammar for our students is reported speech. Reported speech is a structure which is used quite commonly in natural English but can be a little complicated to get your head around and use fluently and accurately.

Before you teach your students, make sure you know and understand the rules behind using reported speech, so you can explain it simply and clearly.

Function

We use reported speech when we want to relay what other people have said. In other words, we want to report people’s comments.

Form

Reported speech makes use of certain reporting verbs, usually say and tell. When we use reporting verbs, the verb in the direct statement is backshifted – it is transformed into a tense in the past.

To illustrate this, see how the verb tense changes according to the following table:

Tense Direct speech Reported speech
Present simple “I am tired.” He said he was tired.
Present continuous “I am having lunch.” He said he was having lunch.
Past simple “I went out last night.” She said she had gone out that night.
Past continuous “I was doing my homework.” She said she had been doing her homework.
Present perfect “I have been to New York.” They said they had been to New York.
Will “I will be there.” They said they would be there.
can “I can cook.” He said he could cook.
must “I must work tonight.” She said she had to work that night.

The above examples all show the use of the verb say. When we use tell we need to include an object ie he told me (that) he was tired.

Note also that though this is the rule, it is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes the situation can dictate that the tense does not backshift and stays the same. For example, if a person is talking about something which is known to be still true, the tense can stay the same. The same applies if the reporting is taking place very soon after the direct speech takes place.

Because of the backshift, any reference to times, places or demonstratives may need to be changed as well.  So I’m meeting Sarah tonight to see this movie becomes He was meeting Sarah that night to see that movie.

Questions

For reported questions, the backshift still takes place but there is an added element of difficulty added to designate that it’s a question.

For wh-questions, the word order of the question needs to be converted into that of a positive statement. If the question uses the verb to be, the verb is kept but if the verb is not the verb to be and uses the auxiliary do we need to take it out.

“Where is the bank?” à He asked (me) where the bank was.

“What time does the bank open?” à He asked me what time the bank opens.

For yes/no questions, we need to add in if or whether:

“Do you like coffee?” à She asked (me) if/whether I liked coffee.

As you can see, though reported speech may seem like a simple structure to use, there are a lot of aspects which need to be considered to use it correctly. However, if you explain it clearly and logically to your students, show them how to form the structure step-by-step and allow them plenty of opportunities to practise, they will soon get the hang of it.