Reported Speech Rules in English

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Talking about what someone else has already said, also known as reported speech, involves a few special grammar rules in English.

How you form reported speech will largely depend on what was said and when it was said. Unfortunately, you can’t always repeat back what you hear verbatim (using exactly the same words)!

So, how should you report speech in English? What are the grammar rules that dictate these indirect speech patterns? Finally, what are some examples of reported speech? We will answer all of these questions and more, but first, let’s take a look at exactly what is meant by “reported speech.”

Prefer to watch this lesson on video? Here’s our full length tutorial on Reported Speech Rules in English:

Reported Speech Rules in English:

What is reported speech?

Reported speech simply refers to statements that recount what someone else has already said or asked. For example, let’s say that you and your two friends went to the movies. As you’re leaving the movie theater, the following conversation takes place:

Friend #1: That movie was really scary!

You: I know, right?

Friend #2: What did he say?

You: He said that the movie was really scary.

The last sentence is what is known as “reported speech,” because you reported something that someone else said. In most cases, a statement of reported speech uses verbs like “say” or “tell,” though you can also use verbs like “state,” “proclaim,” or “announce,” depending on the context of the original statement.

In any case, this is just one example of reported speech in the simple past tense. Different rules apply based on the verb tense and the content of the statement. First, let’s look at how reported speech statements work in the simple present tense:

Reporting Statements in the Simple Present Tense

If you report a statement using the simple present tense (say, tell, etc), then you can also leave the original statement in the present tense. Here are a few examples:

  • I like basketball -> They say that they like basketball.
  • He wants to visit Paris -> He tells me that he wants to visit Paris.
  • I watch TV every day -> She says she watches TV every day.

As you can see, both the reporting verb and the reported verb remain in the simple present tense. It is also important to note that, regardless of the tense, the word “that” is completely optional in reported speech. The meaning stays the same with or without it.

Reporting Statements in Other Tenses

Generally, when the reporting verb is in the simple past tense, we change the reported verb as well. For example:

  • Statement: I feel sad.
  • Reported Speech: He said he felt sad.

Since reported speech is reported after the fact, the reporting verb is usually in the simple past tense. This means that you will usually need to change the tense of the second clause. For example:

Tense Statement Reported Speech
Simple Present I like oranges. He said that he liked oranges.
Present Continuous I am swimming. She said that she was swimming.
Present Perfect I have seen the movie. He said that he had seen the movie.
Simple Past I forgot to bring my lunch. She said that she forgot her lunch OR she said that she had forgotten her lunch.
Past Continuous I was looking for the train station. He said that she had been looking for the train station.
Past Perfect I had finished the letter before they arrived. She said that she had finished the letter before they arrived.
Simple Future I will move to New York. He said that he would move to New York.
Future Continuous I will be hanging out with someone. She said that she would be hanging out with someone.
Future Perfect I will have forgotten about it by tomorrow. He said that he would have forgotten about it by tomorrow.
Present Perfect Continuous I have been waiting in line. She said that she had been waiting in line.
Past Perfect Continuous I had been exercising more often. He said that he had been exercising more often.
Future Perfect Continuous By next month, I will have been a nurse for 10 years. She said that by next month, she will have been a nurse for 10 years.

How to Change Tenses in Reported Speech

As you can see, the rules governing how to report speech can vary based on the tense of the original statement. Generally, you can’t go wrong if you follow these guidelines (from the original statement to reported speech):

  • Simple Present -> Simple Past
  • Present Continuous -> Past Continuous
  • Present Perfect -> Past Perfect
  • Simple Past -> Simple Past OR Past Perfect
  • Past Continuous -> Past Perfect Continuous
  • Simple Future -> “will” becomes “would”
  • Future Continuous -> “will” becomes “would”
  • Future Perfect -> “will” becomes “would”
  • Present Perfect Continuous -> Past Perfect Continuous
  • Past Perfect Continuous -> Past Perfect Continuous
  • Future Perfect Continuous -> Future Perfect Continuous

That said, there are some exceptions in the present tense. For example, if the original statement is comprised of general information that is unchanging, you don’t need to report it in the past tense. Here are a few examples:

  • Simple Present: Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius. -> He said that water freezes at zero degrees Celcius.
  • Present Continuous: The planet is rotating around the sun. -> She said that the planet is rotating around the sun.
  • Present Perfect: Human beings have always liked dogs. -> He said that human beings have always liked dogs.

Reporting Questions

Reporting statements is relatively straightforward, as it usually just requires the second clause to change tense (sometimes not even that). However, reporting questions is more complex. First of all, when you report a question, you cannot just repeat the original question. Instead, you must turn it into a statement. Here’s an example question:

Do you have a lighter?

If you want to report this question later, you’ll need to change it, like so:

They asked me if I had a lighter.

Thankfully, once you learn the guidelines for reporting statements, you can apply many of the same rules to reporting questions. All of the tense changes are the same:

  • Simple Present: Do you like to read? -> He asked if I liked to read.
    • Note: For “Yes/No” questions, we change “do” or “does” to “if.”
  • Present Continuous: Are you running errands today? -> She asked if I was running errands today.
  • Present Perfect: Have you spoken to her? -> He asked if I had spoken to her.
  • Simple Past: Did you believe the story? -> She asked if I believed the story.
  • Past Continuous: How were you behaving? -> He asked me how I was behaving.
  • Simple Future: Will you go shopping later? -> She asked me if I would go shopping later.
  • Future Continuous: Will you be cooking tonight? -> He asked me if I would be cooking tonight.
  • Future Perfect: Will you have received your diploma by then? -> She asked if I would have received my diploma by then.
  • Present Perfect ContinuousHave you been doing your homework? -> He asked me if I had been doing my homework.
  • Past Perfect ContinuousHow long had you been sleeping? -> She asked me how long I had been sleeping.
  • Future Perfect ContinuousWill you have been travelling? -> He asked if I would have been travelling.

Requests and Demands

To keep things simple, requests are treated the same as questions when reported to someone else. For example:

  • Please sit down. -> He asked me to sit down.
  • Could you open the door for me? -> She asked if I could open the door for her?
  • Would you mind holding my bag? -> He asked if I would mind holding his bag.

However, if someone demands something, we generally report the speech using “told” instead of “asked” or “said.” Here are some commands in reported speech:

  • Be quiet! -> She told me to be quiet.
  • Don’t touch that! -> He told me not to touch that.
  • Brush your teeth. -> She told me to brush my teeth.

Finally, when reporting speech, you must always consider the time in which the original statement was made. If a time is mentioned within the statement, you will also have to consider how that time relates to the current moment.

You have a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday.

For example, let’s say that the statement above was reported to you a few days prior, but you reported it to someone else on Monday (the day before the appointment). You could say either of the following:

She told me that I have a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday, or

She told me that I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow.

Here are a few more time conversions to help you with reported speech:

  • Call your father right now. -> She told me to call my father right then.
  • I saw you at the movies last night. -> He said he saw me at the movies the night before.
  • Were you at school last week? -> She asked if I had been at school the week prior.
  • Can I talk to you tomorrow? -> He asked if he could talk to me the next day.

Reported Speech Exercises

Now that you have a better understanding of reported speech in English, it’s time to practice! Fortunately, there are a number of ways to practice reported speech in daily conversation. So, here are a few free online resources to help you get the hang of it:

Lastly, if you’d like to learn more about reported speech or find a highly qualified English tutor online to help guide you, visit Magoosh Speaking today!

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