They said what!!?? Being able to say what he said about what she said in reply to what they said (you get the gist) is a crucial skill not only for everyday speech, but very important for professional communications at work too. It is something that native-speakers (and many learners) will pick-up naturally, however it is important to be aware of the rules governing how we talk about what others talked about!

So, the important thing to note is that in reported speech (i.e. “He said that….”), the tenses, word-order and pronouns may all change from the original sentence. There are certain rules to follow, depending on which tense the original sentence is in. Ready? Here we go….

Present Simple

  • Original speech: “I work very hard in the coffee shop.”
  • Reported speech: “She said that she worked very hard in the coffee shop.”

The only change here, is that we switched the present simple (I work) into past simple (she worked). Simples.

N.B: Although we can change the tense, if something is still true (i.e. that she still works hard), it is perfectly acceptable to keep the present tense. i.e. “She said that she works very hard in the shop.”

Present Continuous

  • Original speech: “Stop playing the trumpet. The neighbours are complaining.”
  • Reported speech: “He told me to stop playing the trumpet because the neighbours were complaining.”

In the same way as the first example, the present continuous (are complaining) just changed to past continuous (were complaining).

Past Simple

  • Original speech: “I watched TV for six hours yesterday.”
  • Reported speech: “He claimed that he had watched TV for six hours yesterday.”

Here, we changed the past simple (I watched) to past perfect (he had watched) in order to report this audacious claim.

Past Continuous

  • Original speech: “She was looking out the window when she saw the wolf.”
  • Reported speech: “She reported that she had been looking out the window when she saw the wolf.”

Past continuous (was looking) changed to past perfect continuous (she had been looking). Note though, that in the same way as Present Simple, we don’t always need to change the Past Simple parts of reported speech. “She saw the wolf” is perfectly acceptable to leave unchanged.

Practice makes perfect, it’s Perfect Tenses:

  • Original speech: “My family have always been incredibly loving towards me.”
  • Reported speech: “He exclaimed that his family had always been incredibly loving towards him.”

In this example, the present perfect tense (have always been) changed to past perfect tense (had always been). But take a look at the following use of past perfect tense:

  • Original speech: “They had finished all their work by the time I got back to the classroom.”
  • Reported speech: “She said that they had finished all their work by the time she got back to the classroom.”

Hooray – no change here. Finally! The past perfect tense does not change in reported speech.

Have a go at putting this into practice yourself. Whenever you read (fiction books work really well for this), re-write any speech you come across as reported – write it down, and then double-check these guidelines. It’s a great exercise, and really helps put all these rules into use. Good luck, and happy reporting!

2 thoughts on “English as a Foreign Language: Reported Speech

  1. A very good post. Unfortunately interviews etc we see more and more examples of individuals not being able to distinguish the use of these different tenses. Also Facebook etc is full of bad examples. Cheers


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