When you report what someone has said, you need to turn the direct speech, i.e. the actual spoken words, into indirect speech. In doing so, there are some rules you need to keep in mind that will be explained in the following.
Let’s have a look at an example in order to get a first understanding of what the differences are between direct and indirect speech:
[box]Rosa Parks: „I‚m tired of being treated like a second-class citizen.“[/box]
As the quotation marks indicate, this is a sentence in direct speech. It can be turned into reported speech by the employment of a reporting verb:
[box]Rosa Parks says that she is tired of being treated like a second-class citizen.[/box]
In this case, you can see how the pronoun ‚I‘ has changed into ’she‘ as it is no longer Rosa Parks herself that is speaking, but the person reporting who repeats what she says. Other reporting verbs may be answer, add, admit, announce, argue, claim, comment, complain, doubt, deny, explain, insist, mention, remark, repeat, reply, state, suggest, tell, ask, and many more. However, as this is a historical quote, it is more adequate to employ the reporting verb in the past tense:
[box]Rosa Parks said that she was tired of being treated like a second-class citizen.[/box]
Note how by employing the reporting verb in the past tense, the tense in the reported clause changes as well: In the direct speech version, it was employed in the simple present, whereas it is now employed in the simple past. This is a very important particularity of reported speech and is called tense shift or backshift of tenses as (in most cases), the tense is shifted one tense back to the past. In the table below, you will find all the tense shifts that occur when the reported part of the sentence is preceded by a reporting verb in the past tense.
Backshift of tenses
|Tense||Direct speech||Indirect speech||Tense (or mode)|
|simple present||Rosa Parks: “I’m tired of being treated like a second-class citizen.”||Rosa Parks said that she was tired of being treated like a second-class citizen.||simple past|
|present progressive/continuous||Malcolm X: „It isn’t that time is running out – time has run out!“||Malcolm X stated that it wasn’t that time was running out but that time had already run out.||past progressive/continuous|
|present perfect||Maya Angelou: „There is no person here who is over one year old who hasn’t slept with fear, or pain or loss or grief, or terror, and yet we have all arisen […].“||Maya Angelou argued that there was no person there who was over one year old who had not slept with fear, pain, loss, grief, or terror, and that yet, they had all arisen.||past perfect|
|present perfect progressive/continuous||Barack Obama: „We are the ones we‘ve been waiting for.“||Barack Obama remarked that they were the ones they had been waiting for.||past perfect progressive/continuous|
|simple past||Nelson Mandela: „I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.“||Nelson Mandela stated he had learned that courage had not been the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.||past perfect|
|past progressive/continuous||Woody Allen: „They were doing the Dying Swan at the ballet.“||Woody Allen mentioned that they had been doing the Dying Swan at the ballet.||past perfect progressive/continuous|
|past perfect||James Baldwin: „Since I had been born in a Christian nation, I accepted this Deity as the only one.“||James Baldwin argued that since he had been born in a Christian nation, he had accepted this Deity as the only one.“||past perfect|
|past perfect progressive/continuous||Jerome Cavanagh: „We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot.“||Jerome Cavanagh admitted that they had hoped against hope that what they had been doing had been enough to prevent a riot.||past perfect progressive/continuous|
|will-future||Barack Obama: „Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time.“||Barack Obama stated that change would not come if we waited for some other person or if we waited for some other time.||present conditional|
|future progressive/continuous||Madhur Mittal: „Things are looking up, and hopefully, I will be doing good roles in both Hollywood and Bollywood.“||Madhur Mittal answered that things were looking up and that he would hopefully be doing good roles in both Hollywood and Bollywood.||conditional progressive/continuous|
Reported speech with modal auxiliaries
With regard to modal auxiliaries, it is important to note that can, shall and may become could, should and might in reported speech, whereas might, should and could as well as must and had to remain the same in indirect speech.
[box] „You may go outside.“ He said her daughter might go outside.
„You might not want to go outside.“ He said she might not want to go outside.
„He shall never find love.“ She said he should never find love.
„You should listen to Sam Cooke.“ She said her friend should listen to Sam Cooke.
„I had to do it.“ She said she had to do it.
„We must leave this town.“ He said they must leave the town.[/box]
Reported speech with conditional sentences
In the conditional sentence type I, the verb forms change after a past tense reporting verb.
[box]“If we remain silent, nothing will change.“
She said that if we remained silent, nothing would change.[/box]
There are two possibilities for the conditional sentence type II, depending on whether or not the condition refers to a possible future. If the condition could possibly occur in the future, there is no backshift of tenses made and the tenses remain unchanged:
[box]„If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran for president in 2024, I would vote for her.“
She said she would vote for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez if she ran for president in 2025.[/box]
If the condition is impossible due to past time reference, the verb forms change:
[box]“If Barack Obama became president again, he would reintroduce the DREAM Act to the Senate.“
They said that if Barack Obama had become president again, he would have reintroduced the DREAM Act to the Senate. [/box]
In the conditional sentence type III, once more, verb forms remain unchanged.
[box]„If it hadn’t been for the Civil Rights Movement, Black US-Americans would not have had access to public universities.“
They argued that if it had not been for the Civil Rights Movement, Black US-Americans would not have had access to public universities. [/box]
Reported speech and changes in structure
With some reporting verbs, the grammatical structure of the reported clause changes significantly in that the reporting verb is not followed by that + reported clause, but by structures with to-infinitives or the subjunctive (yes, the subjunctive also exists in English.) Reporting verbs that trigger structures with to-infinitives are advise, ask (in the sense of demand), forbid, instruct, invite, order, persuade, remind, tell, warn. Note how very often, but not necessarily, the sentences that are to be reported are imperative clauses:
[box] „Be patient and persistent.“ She told me to be patient and persistent.
„You should better not go to that event.“ He warned his friend not to go to the event.
„Please talk to Omar concerning the transaction.“ His boss asked him to talk to Omar concerning the transaction.
„Open the program and wait until the files are copied.“ She instructed his employee to open the program and wait until the files were copied.
„If I were you, I would get informed about Martin Luther King Jr.“ He advised me to get informed about Martin Luther King Jr. [/box]
Reporting verbs that trigger the subjunctive or a structure that embeds the modal verb should are suggest, propose, recommend, advise, agree, demand, insist, prefer, propose, request, urge. The subjunctive is identical with the infinitve form of the verb, which is why the only difference in the present tense between the two modes occurs in the third person singular as there is no -s added to it. The only verb that has a past subjunctive form is be: its two indicative forms, was/were, are reduced to only one form, namely were (which is why Beyoncé sings „If I were a boy“ instead of „If I was a boy“…). Here are some example sentences:
[box]„You should definitely apply for the position of chief executive officer.“ They insisted that she apply for the CEO position. / They insisted that she should apply for the CEO position.
„If there is one book you should have read, that is The Bell Jar.“ She recommended that her friend read The Bell Jar. / She recommended that her friend should read The Bell Jar. [/box]
A special case: reporting ideas in academic writing
There is one situation in which reporting ’speech‘ is in fact less clear-cut. A significant feature of most types of academic writing is the inclusion of ideas and data provided by earlier research in the field, often described as ‚literature review‘ or ’state of the art‘. This serves to put the writer’s own ideas into context and show where they fit in the discourse on the subject. Thus, there is a kind of reported speech occurring here. However, when it comes to referring to such ideas, it is conventional to formulate them in the present, as the ideas are considered to be ongoing. Thus, even long-dead personalities such as Confucius, Karl Marx, or Benjamin Franklin are presented as immortal in a sense, putting both the reporting verbs and the verbs of what is reported in the present tense:
[box] Confucius: „To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous.“ Confucius remarks that while it is a waste to study without thinking, thinking without studying is downright dangerous.
Marx: „Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress may be measured precisely by the social position of the fair sex …“ (letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, 12 December 1868.) Marx proposes that social revolution cannot be achieved without support from and contributions by women.
Benjamin Franklin: „Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.“ (Franklin proposed this as the motto on the Great Seal of the United States.) Benjamin Franklin posits that rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God. [/box]
Now that you have read this article, you can test your knowledge on reported speech by taking this test. If you still have questions regarding this or any other grammar topic, feel free to contact us!