Chapter 9-5: Direct and Reported Speech

Grammar > Building Sentences > Direct & Reported Speech

Direct speech

Direct speech is a representation of the exact words that have been said by someone.

Harry said, "I'm going to bed."

Louise asked, "What time is it? Did you set your alarm?"

Harry said, "Please set it for me."

Quotation marks are used to separate the direct speech from its surrounding context.

Reported Speech

Reported speech is an indirect representation of what has been said by someone.

Reporting speech requires systematic changes to give the same meaning or reflect many of the same words that were spoken, but with changed forms.

Direct Speech: Harry said, "I'm going to bed."

Reported Speech: Harry said (that) he was going to bed.

Reported speech is grammatically connected to the context of the whole sentence and it appears without quotation marks.

The Optional "That"

Connecting reported speech without quotation marks means joining clauses that used to be clearly separate. "That" may be used to connect the reported speech as an object clause.

"That" has become unnecessary in this position, meaning that it can be used for clarity and formality, but is often left out of informal situations.

Including "that": Harry said that he was going to bed.

Without "that": Harry said he was going to bed.

Changing Pronouns

Direct speech is based on the perspective of the person who is speaking. If Harry is going to bed, he uses the first person pronoun "I" in subject position.

In reported speech, references may need to be shifted to the new context of the sentence, not the person who is speaking. In reported speech, the third person pronoun "he" is used in subject position to talk about Harry.

Harry said, "I'm going to bed." -> Harry said he was going to bed.

Changing the pronouns can be a complex task, and may need to be carefully processed to ensure that it is logical, unambiguous and necessary. Remember that it is not necessary to change the pronouns if they have the same meaning in their indirect context.

John said, "She never does any work." -> John said she never did any work.

John continued, "I do everything." -> John continued that he did everything.

John said, "You can help me today." -> John said I could help him today.

Backshifting Verbs

Reported speech occurs after the original direct speech has been produced. For this reason, the reported clauses need to reflect their connection to the past. The verbs in reported speech normally undergo systematic changes from the direct speech forms.

Harry said, "I'm going to bed." -> Harry said he was going to bed.

When Harry announced his action, he used the present continuous tense.

When we integrate the announcement, we conform it to the surrounding context. Just as Harry said is a past description, we need to move his words into the past. Harry's words are reported in the past continous.

Examples of common changes are shown below.

present simple -> past simple

She said, "I'm busy." -> She said she was busy.

present continuous -> past continuous

They said, "We are making dinner." -> They said they were making dinner.

present perfect -> past perfect

You said, "We have never done that." -> You said you had never done that.

past simple -> past perfect

He said, "You wrote the book." -> He said I had written the book.

past continous -> past perfect continuous

I said, "I was sleeping." -> I said I had been sleeping.

past perfect -> past perfect

They said, "It had rained." -> They said it had rained.

will -> would

She said, "I will call you back." -> She said she would call us back.

Backshifting is usually correct and necessary in reported speech and is an important skill to master.

However, based on the context of the reported speech, it is sometimes possible not to backshift the verbs.

Backshifting is not necessary when the reported speech is relevant at the same time, or very soon after, the direct speech was spoken.

Lisa took the phone away from her ear and explained, "Dad said he is at home."

Lisa reported what her father had said immediately before.

Backshifting is also not necessary if the information is likely or certain to be still true at the time of the reported speech.

Paul said his grandparents died when he was very young.

To be formal and correct, it is recommended to backshift verbs at all times. However, in spoken and informal situations, it is common to replicate the direct verb form in such cases.

Phrases Needing Context

Some words and phrases may not be appropriate in reported speech because they are related to their specific context and often lose meaning when reported in a different context. They need to be changed or deleted if they do not function well in the reported speech.

Below are some examples of context-reliant words and phrases and possible reported speech forms. There may be a variety of different ways to adapt similar phrases.



  • today -> the same day

  • yesterday -> the day before

  • tomorrow -> the following day

  • last week -> the previous week

  • this month -> that month

  • next year -> the next year

  • now -> at that time

  • 5 minutes ago -> 5 minutes earlier

  • soon -> not long after


  • here/there -> in the same place/(describe or name the place)

  • nearby/far away -> near (describe or name)/far away from (describe or name)

Determiners ad Pronouns

  • this/that/these/those -> it/them/(specify the person, place or object)

Direct Speech: He said, "I'll start work tomorrow."

Reported Speech: He said he would start work the next day.

Direct Speech: She said, "I found these here ten minutes ago."

Reported Speech: She said she had found them there ten minutes before.


These are certain expressive words and phrases that are very meaningful when used in direct speech, but that lose their function in reported speech. Instead, their meaning should be described. If they add no helpful meaning, they can be fully removed.

"Wow, I've never seen that before." -> He was amazed and said he had never seen it before.

"I am really sad about it. How awful!" -> She said she was really sad about the awful news.

"Very well!" -> He agreed with me.

"Yes, I will buy some rice." -> She said she would buy some rice.

"Are you tired?" "No." -> He said he was not tired.

Introductory Verbs

The previous examples are formed with the basic speech-introduction verb "said".

There are many other introductory verbs to choose from. These can add variety and expression.


told (+ indirect object pronoun)











She announced that she would be leaving her job.

He mused that it might be better to start in the morning.


Questions also need to be adapted according to specific rules when reported.

Direct Speech Question: Louise asked, "What time is it? Did you set your alarm?"

Reported Question: Louise asked what time it was and if he had set an alarm.

Just like reported statements, reported questions also need changed pronouns, backshifted verbs and adaptation of phrases that need context.

Question Types


Questions starting with a "wh" question word (such as who, what, when, etc.) keep this component in reported speech. This functions as a connecting word between the introductory clause and the reported clauses.

Direct Speech Questions: Louise asked, "What time is it?"

Reported Question: Louise asked what time it was.


Questions that give limited options, or can be answered with "yes" or "no" require a connecting word. Either of the conjunctions "if" and "whether" needs to be added.

Direct Speech Question: Louise asked, "Did you set your alarm?"

Reported Question with "if": Louise asked if he had set an alarm.

Reported Question with "whether": Louise asked whether he had set an alarm.

The two options have exactly the same meaning when used for reporting, except that "whether" is preferred for formal situations.

Notice that the auxiliary "did" disappears from the reported question in the example above. This will be explained in the next section.

Transforming the Structure

Direct speech questions follow a question structure to exactly replicate the original question. Reported questions are not questions, they are sentences about questions, used for description.

For this reason, the inverted question structure that often places an auxiliary before the subject, needs to be reordered as a standard subject + verb sentence.

Direct Speech Question: Louise asked, "What time is it (verb + subject)?

Did you set your alarm (auxiliary + subject + verb)?"

Reported Question: Louise asked what time it was (subject + verb) and if he had set an alarm (subject + verb).

Note that direct speech questions are punctuated with question marks, but reported questions are punctuated with periods.

Introductory Verbs

The previous examples of questions are formed with the basic speech-introduction verb "asked".

There are several other introductory verbs to choose from. These can add variety and expression.






She questioned whether they had entered the building.

He queried why you preferred the more difficult test.

REPORTED Instructions and requests

Instructions and requests are also reported with a changed structure.

Direct Instruction: Harry said, "Please set the alarm."

Reported Instruction: Harry asked her to set the alarm.

Direct requests or instructions are most commonly given using the imperative form of the verb. To report an imperative, the verb must become a "to infinitive", which looks very similar except for the added "to".

Polite Requests

These requests are normally friendly and informal. The directly spoken instruction may be formed with an imperative (also known as a direct request) or question form (also known as an indirect request).

Polite Imperative DIRECT SPEECH: She said, "Please boil the water".

Polite Imperative REPORTED SPEECH: She asked me to boil the water.

Use an introductory verb such as "ask" and a "to infinitive" verb to directly report a polite request.

DIRECT Question Form Request: He asked, "Could you (please) boil the water?"

REPORTED Question Form Request: He asked if I could boil the water.

The original quote is structured as a question, including verb/subject ordering and a final question mark.

The reported version undergoes the same changes as any reported question, such as the addition of "if" or "whether." Use modal verbs such as "could", "would" and "might" in the object clause.

DIRECT Question Form Request: Peter asked, "Can you pass the plate?"

REPORTED Question Form Requests:

Peter asked whether you could pass the plate.

Peter asked whether you would pass the plate.

Peter asked whether you might pass the plate.

Some polite question form requests contain politeness phrases such as "Could I ask", "May I inquire" and similar phrasing. These phrases will create repetition in the reported request, so they are often left out.

Direct Request: Jim asked, "May I ask what time the shop opens in the morning?"

Reported Request: Jim asked what time the shop opened in the morning.

Jim asked if he might ask what time the shop opened in the morning.

Authoritative Instructions

These formal requests are found in official instructions, orders and requirements.

DIRECT Authoritative Instructions: Leave the chairs on the tables.

They may be formed in different ways:

1. With a to infinitive form

"To Infinitive" Form: The instructions asked us to leave the chairs on the tables.

2. With a subjunctive verb in an independent clause

Subjunctive Verb Form: The instructions asked (that) we leave the chairs on the tables.

3. There is sometimes also a possible third form. This is using an independent clause with a modal verb.

Modal Verb Form: The instructions told us that we should leave the chairs on the tables.

A modal form is only possible after certain introductory verbs, including told, instructed and said.

Modal forms cannot be used after certain other introductory verbs such as demanded, ordered and requested.

Introductory Verbs

The previous examples of instructions are formed with "ask" and "say."

There are other introductory verbs to choose from. They can add variety and expression. They can also affect the politeness and authoritativeness of instructions and requests.

ordered + subjunctive

ordered (+ indirect object) + to infinitive

requested + subjunctive/modal

demanded + subjunctive

told (+ indirect object) + to infinitive/modal

said + to infinitive/modal

announced + modal

asked + subjunctive/modal

asked (+ indirect object) + to infinitive

instructed + subjunctive

instructed (indirect object) + to infinitive


They told us to drive carefully.

They told us that we drive carefully.

We requested that he resubmit the document.

We requested him to resubmit the document.

Notice that there is often a difference in the correct structure depending on the reference to the person as a direct object in the introduction, or as the subject of the reported verb.

He instructed his brother, "Leave a message."

Reference to person: his brother

Reported Verb: leave

Reference as direct object in introduction: He instructed his brother to leave a message.

Reference as subject of reported verb: He instructed that his brother leave a message.

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