Reported speech – how to say what someone told you

by Liz Walter
reportedspeech
We often need to tell people what someone else has said to us:

He said he wanted to come with us.

She told me she hadn’t seen the document.

This is what the textbooks call ‘reported speech‘, because you are reporting what has been said to you.

To use reported speech correctly, you have to be careful about what tense you use. The basic rule is that you look at the tense the speaker used, then you go back one tense to report it.

So, for instance, if someone says something in the present tense, you report it in the past tense:

‘I like dogs.’ ‘She said she liked dogs.’

            ‘I’m visiting my cousin.’ ‘He said he was visiting his cousin.’

In the same way, if someone says something in the present perfect, you report it in the past perfect:

‘I’ve cleaned the kitchen.’ ‘He told me he‘d cleaned the kitchen.’

            ‘I’ve been reading her latest novel.’ ‘He said he’d been reading her latest novel.’ 

However, if someone says something in the past perfect, there’s no tense to go back to, so you use the same tense:

‘I had met him somewhere before.’ ‘She said she had met him somewhere before.’

            ‘I had been thinking about moving house.’ ‘He told me he had been thinking about moving house.’

 

If the person speaking uses a past simple tense, things are a little less clear. The safest thing is to use the past perfect:

‘I was at the meeting.’ ‘She said she had been at the meeting.’

            ‘I was eating my lunch.’ ‘He said he had been eating his lunch.’

However, in real-life English, it is very common not to change tenses, and you will often hear things like this:

‘I was at the meeting.’ ‘She said she was at the meeting.’

            ‘I was eating my lunch.’ ‘He said he was eating his lunch.’

In real-life English, you will hear other tenses reported without going back a tense too, but as always, if you are writing something formal, or taking an exam, it’s safest to stick to the rules.

 

Finally, if you want to report a question, you use if or whether.

‘Are you a doctor?’ ‘He asked me if I was a doctor.’

            ‘Has the concert started?’ ‘She asked whether the concert had started.’

And remember – after if and whether, you need to use statement word order, not question word order.

21 thoughts on “Reported speech – how to say what someone told you

  1. Pingback: Reported Speech (Explanation and Video) « English Post

  2. Juan Carlos

    Hi! My name is Juan Carlos and I’m studying Upper-Intermediate English. I’ve learnt about Reported speech in the classroom but it is really important for me when you say that in real-life Engllish, it is very common not to change tenses. This is what I hadn’t been told until now. Thanks a lot.

  3. bradvines2015

    Liz Walter. If you will THINK about the nonsense your rule on Reported Speech dictates, you will see what’s the matter.
    For example, if he said, “I’ve cleaned the kitchen”, he mis-spoke. He should say, would correctly say, “I cleaned the kitchen’. Then you report, “He told me he cleaned the kitchen”, NOT “He told me he had cleaned the kitchen”.
    You are dispensing incorrect English grammar, as can be clearly demonstrated.
    Drop me a line and I will try to explain it to you.

  4. Liz Walter

    Dear Bradvines. I’m sorry you find it necessary to comment so rudely. It is in fact perfectly possible to say ‘I’ve cleaned the kitchen.’ If you think about the question ‘Have you cleaned the kitchen?’, you will see that this is true. And the basic rule for reported speech is that the present perfect is reported as past perfect. Perhaps you are more exposed to American English, where present perfect is less commonly used?

    1. Dear Liz Walter,
      There is nothing rude about calling what you wrote “nonsense”. Had I written “that’s bxllshxt”, THAT would be “rude”.
      I cannot write it more clearly than what I wrote above. Read it again and THINK about what it says. There are people who think it makes them seem erudite, learned, educated, to put ‘have’s and ‘had’s in front of past tense verbs, but it’s not true. It only makes them seem ignorant and uneducated. We do NOT say, properly, “Have you cleaned the kitchen?” We say, DID you clean the kitchen. The proper English answer is “Yes, I did” or “Yes, I cleaned the kitchen”. Believe me, you won’t make yourself sound smart and well-educated by asking “Have you cleaned the kitchen” or by replying “Yes, I have.” That’s bad, BAD, English, regardless of how many times you might hear it spoken that way, and regardless of which side of the pond you live on. Living in England is no excuse for using incorrect English.
      Sorry to be so long replying but this just popped up.
      .brad.friday.03july2015.

      1. Rick Antonio

        I´m not here to defend Miss Walter. But she´s absolutely right in her explanations on reported speech. Mr. Bradvines must have mixed up American English with British English. Rick Antonio

      2. Luc007

        Dear Bradvines,
        Liz Walter’s use of the present perfect tense is perfectly correct. In fact, the question could well be “Have you cleaned the kitchen yet?” and the answer “Yes, I have” or “Yes, I’ve cleaned it”.
        When a question or a statement includes the word “YET” or “NOT YET”, the past tense cannot (and must not) be used, only the present perfect (or past perfect) can be used.
        If someone asks a question in the present perfect tense, it is absolutely correct to reply by using the verb in the present perfect tense (“Yes, I have cleaned the kitchen” or “No, I have not cleaned the kitchen yet”), or just the auxiliary (“Yes, I have” or “No, I haven’t”).
        It is also correct that in the reported speech, one should say “He told me that he had cleaned the kitchen” and you could perhaps continue the sentence by saying “but I found it still very filthy”.
        I know this is subtle, but I’m sure you can understand that mastering that kind of language is by no means speaking BAD English. I dare say, it is quite the opposite.
        Liz, keep on with the good work, your articles are always very thoughtful and informative.

      3. Sorry Luc007 and Liz Walter. This is still in my inbox from Feb 17 and it’s now 14 March 2016. I regret my oversight.

        Luc007 wrote: “Dear Bradvines, Liz Walter’s use of the present perfect tense is perfectly correct. In fact, the question could well be “Have you cleaned the kitchen yet?” and the answer “Yes, I have” or “Yes, I’ve cleaned it”.

        … to which I would have replied then and still do reply now: You’re right. If someone erroneously said, “Have you cleaned the kitchen yet?” you might well reply, “Yes, I have”, but giving an incorrect answer to an incorrect question, doesn’t make enough sense for my taste. If someone wants to perpetuate ignorance, someone wants to perpetuate ignorance.

        The problem is that the question should have been, DID you clean the kitchen? and the correct answer to that correct question is, “Yes, I DID”.

        To back it up a step, maybe several steps, the so-called “reported-speech” rule can be shown to not make sense. Proponents would have us say, “The president said (past tense; he’s not saying it now) he hoped (sometime in the past) the Israelis will not do anything provocative”. But, as a matter of FACT, he still hoped it when he said it.

        Correct is, necessarily: “The president said he HOPES the Israelis will not do anything provocative”.

        Imagine, as I do, that a graduate student somewhere, sometime in the past, hoping to make himself or herself seem smarter than he or she really was, let fly the Reported Speech Rule, in the hope that it might propel its protagonist to, or toward, an advanced degree. It stuck with us, but it STILL makes no sense. Didn’t then, doesn’t now.

        .brad.monday.14march2016.

  5. Foluke Okanlawon- Ajayi

    Mrs Walter, thank you for exposing me to the basic rules of reported speech though i studied English Language in my 1st and 2nd degree yet I don’t know these rules God bless u for citing comprehensive examples to back each rule up.

  6. Pingback: Say and tell: How to talk about talking (1) | About Words - Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog

  7. Thank you very much for this post, which is another great one, Ms Walter.

    As for the present perfect vs simple past tense issue, I can say that the advice given here is in-line with the advice in another source I find valuable, The Economist Style Guide. Here is what it says:

    “In particular, do not fight shy – as Americans often do – of the perfect tense, especially where no date or time is given.”

    I think it is indeed something arising from the UK-US English divide.

    Regards,

  8. Still on the subject of reported speech, maybe someone can help me. I found this quote: “This is what the textbooks call ‘reported speech‘, because you are reporting what has been said to you”, which reminds me that there is extant the notion that some people think it makes them seem educated, learned, erudite, to put ‘has’ or ‘had’ or ‘have’ in front of past tense verbs, as in the quote above. Correct, straight-forward English would make the quote read: “This is what the textbooks call ‘reported speech‘, because you are reporting what WAS said to you.”
    My question: what can we call those who do what I just described? We need a name – a tag – so that when we use it, everyone who cares about such niceties as “reported speech”, will know what we mean and what we’re talking about. There ARE such people and what they perpetrate/perpetuate is widespread, among writers, teachers, speakers, anyone and everyone who uses our language. This may seem a complicated explanation, but that is exactly why we need a name, a tag, that pulls it together so we can more-easily talk about it, AND, not-incidentally, TEACH it. Teaching must be the focus of eliminating the widespread practice of putting those “helpers” in front of past tense verbs.
    If this makes your head hurt, let it go!

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