How to confidently use reported speech in English

How to confidently use reported speech in English

by Laura Jones

Updated November 10, 2022

“What did he just say?” He said he didn’t know how to use reported speech. 

Reported speech, also sometimes called indirect speech, is very useful in English. So let’s find out how to use it. 

What is reported speech in English?

We use reported speech to tell someone what we or someone else said earlier. For example: 

“Is John coming?”

“No. I spoke to him earlier and he said he wasn’t coming.”

The part in italics is reported speech; you are reporting what John said. 

Use and used to in English

Reported statements

There are some key things to remember when we are reporting statements. 

  1. We usually change the tense to one further back in the past. We often call this backshifting.

E.g. “I’m not coming,” said John. 

John said (that) he wasn’t coming. 

  1. We change the pronoun: 

E.g. “I’m not coming,” said John. 

John said he wasn’t coming. 

  1. We use a reporting verb like said or told.
  2. The punctuation changes.
  3. We might change demonstratives (this, that…) and adverbs of time and place. We’ll see more about this later. 

Backshifting tenses in reported speech

When we are reporting what someone said, we usually go one tense backwards into the past. Here is a table to show you what it looks like: 

TenseDirect speechReported speech
Present simple“I am happy,” says Sue.Sue said she was happy.
Present continuous“I am working,” says Jay.Jay told me he was working.
Present perfect“Ben has eaten,” says Lola.Lola said Ben had eaten.
Past simple“I saw her,” says Charlie.Charlie said she had seen her.
Past continuous“I was eating,” says Pete.Pete told me he had been eating.
Past perfect*“Tom had read it,” says Iris.Iris said Tom had read it.
Will“I will go,” says Bob.Bob said he would go.
Would*“I would love it,” says Alex.Alex told me he would love it.
Can“I can swim,” says Jane.Jane said she could swim.
Could*“I could run fast,” says Laura.Laura told me she could run fast.
Shall“I shall open the window,” says Claire.Claire said she would open the window. 
Should*“I should call him,” says Sam.Sam said he should call him. 
Must*“I must finish my work,” says Joe.Joe told me that he must finish his work / Joe told me that he had to finish his work.
Might*“I might come,” says Rob.Rob said he might come.

*Doesn’t change

Sometimes, we don’t need to change the tense in reported speech. This is usually when we talk about something that is still true, or a general fact. 

“The moon travels around the Earth,” said the teacher. 

The teacher said the moon travels around the Earth. 

You can use reported speech to tell someone what you said yourself. In this case, the pronoun doesn’t change: 

I’m tired.”

I said I was tired. 

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Punctuation in reported speech

You can see in the examples that we don’t use speech marks in reported speech. We also don’t use the comma after the speech. 

“I might come,” says Rob.Rob said he might come.

Changing demonstratives and adverbs of time and place

This, that, these, those

“I like this dress”. 

Alice said she liked this dress. (You can currently see the dress.)

Alice said she liked that dress. (You cannot currently see the dress.)

“These dogs are mine”. 

Ben said these dogs are his. (You can currently see the dogs.)

Ben said those dogs are his. (You cannot currently see the dogs.

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Adverbs of time and place

If someone talks about a time or a place using adverbs, you might have to change them in reported speech. It will usually depend on the time or place you are using reported speech. 

“I’m seeing him today.”

She said she was seeing him today. (It is the same day.)

She said she was seeing him that day. (It is not the same day.)

“I will go tomorrow.”

He said he would go tomorrow. (It is the same day.)

He said he would go the next / following day. (It is not the same day.)

“It’s over here!”

He told me it was over here. (You are in the same place.)

He told me it was over there. (You are in a different place.)

Direct speechReported speech
yesterdaythe day before / the previous day
last weekThe week before / the previous week

Reported speech sounds like a big, scary grammar point. But, as you can see, it’s not – as long as you know the past tenses! 

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