by Liz Walter
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.
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.
‘I like dogs.’ ‘She said she liked dogs.’
‘I’m visiting my cousin.’ ‘He said he was visiting his cousin.’
‘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.’