How to use indirect speech in English

How to use indirect speech in English

by Andrea Byaruhanga

Updated December 12, 2022

If you’ve been wondering ‘What is indirect speech in English, and how do I use it?’ you’ve come to the right place!

Indirect speech can be confusing at first, but you’ll see plenty of explanations and examples below to get you on the right track.

In order to understand what indirect speech is, it’s important to first understand its counterpart: direct speech. 

What is direct speech in English?

Direct speech refers to repeating, or quoting, what someone said, word for word.

Direct speech can be useful – and even important – in some scenarios, such as these:

  • If you’re writing an essay and need to quote someone influential:

The US president said, ‘I will end this pandemic’.

  • If you’re making a statement to the police about a crime: 

The man said, ‘If you give me all your money, no one will get hurt!’

  • Or, of course, if you’re trying to win an argument: 

Yesterday night, before we went to bed, you said to me (and I quote): ‘Honey, I promise I will take out the rubbish bin first thing in the morning’.

But in reality, indirect speech is more common in most everyday situations.

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What is indirect speech in English?

Indirect speech is also known as reported speech. We use it to report on what someone has said, much like direct speech, but not as a direct quote. 

To show you what we mean, let’s take one of the examples from above and turn it into an indirect statement: 

  • Direct: US president: ‘I will end this pandemic’.
  • Indirect: The US president said he would end this pandemic.

While the message is the same, you can see that the indirect speech is no longer directly quoting the US president’s words. 

Here’s another one:

  • Direct: The man: ‘If you give me all your money, no one will get hurt!’
  • Indirect: The man said that if we gave him all our money, no one would get hurt.

Now, let’s discuss how to change direct speech into indirect speech!

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Reporting statements using ‘say’ or ‘tell’

First, we’ll look at the most common forms of indirect speech, which most commonly use the reporting verbs say and tell. A reporting verb is the verb you use to introduce what someone said.

Without a direct object (say)

subject + reporting verb + (that) + clause 

Direct: Brother: I’ve quit my job.

Indirect: My brother said (that) he had quit his job. 

With a direct object (tell)

subject + reporting verb + direct object** + (that) + clause 

Direct: Carmel: I am leaving. 

Indirect: Carmel told me (that) she was leaving. 

**While the verb ‘say’ can stand alone, the verb ‘tell’ must use a direct object (in the example above that’s ‘me’).

Adding ‘that’

You’ll see in the forms above, the word ‘that’ is in parenthese. That’s because you can decide to use it or not – it doesn’t usually make much difference.  

The main reason you’d add the word ‘that’ is to give a bit of extra clarity to a sentence whose meaning could otherwise be a bit confusing. 

Use and used to in English

Reporting actions (orders, requests, promises, offers, etc.)

When we report on something someone tells or asks you to do, or something that they’ve promised or offered, the form is different. A variety of reporting verbs can be used, such as promise, offer, ask, and order. Sometimes you should use a direct object, whereas other times, you shouldn’t.

Without a direct object

subject + reporting verb + infinitive

Direct: Brother: ‘I will pay you back in one month’.

Indirect: My brother promised to pay me back in one month. 

Direct: Sister: I can help you with your homework, if you’d like.

Indirect: My sister offered to help me with my homework. 

With a direct object

subject + reporting verb + direct object + infinitive

Direct: Uncle: ‘Can you please watch the movie with us?’

Indirect: My uncle asked me to watch the movie with them.

Direct: Grandmother: Wash the dishes before the party!

Indirect: My grandmother ordered me to wash the dishes before the party.

How to confidently use reported speech in English

Verb tense changes in English

When you change a sentence from direct to indirect, the verb tenses change. Let’s look at some general rules: 

Direct speech
Indirect speech 
Present simpleKaren: ‘I’m tired’.→ Past simpleKaren said she was tired.
Present continuousBob and Mark: ‘They are travelling’.→ Past continuousBob and Mark said that they were travelling.
Past simpleMom: ‘Kara was nervous’.→ Past perfectMom told me Kara had been nervous.
Present perfectFriends: ‘We’ve worked out every day’.→ Past perfectMy friends said that they had worked out every day.
Future simpleDaughter: ‘I will help you cook’.→ ‘Would’ + base verbMy daughter told me she would help me cook.

Other word changes

In addition to the verb tense changes above, there are other words you need to change, such as time markers and modal verbs.  

Direct speechIndirect speech
Lily: ‘I can come to the party’.→ Lily said she could come to the party.
Parents: ‘We must get a new car soon’.→ My parents told me they had to get a new car soon.
Customer: ‘We’ll buy these shoes’.→ The customer said they would buy those shoes.
Little girl: ‘I want this one’→ The little girl said she wanted that one. 
Me: ‘He has to leave right now’.→ I said he had to leave right then
Friends: ‘It would be nice to walk in the park today’.→ My friends told me it would be nice to walk in the park that day.
Neighbour: ‘We just saw them yesterday’.→ My neighbour said they had just seen them the day before.
Nico: ‘I want to visit them tomorrow’.Nico told me he wanted to visit them the next day/the following day.
Alana: I might go shopping tonight→ Alana said she might go shopping that night.

Pronoun changes

When you’re reporting on what someone else has said, it’s important that you modify the pronouns accordingly. Check out the following rules:

  • First-person pronouns in direct speech change to third-person pronouns in indirect speech:
  • Direct: Sam: ‘I’m so excited to visit my sister in Spain!’ 
  • Indirect: Sam said that she was so excited to visit her sister in Spain.
  • If the direct speech uses a second-person pronoun as an object, report it using a first-person pronoun:
  • Direct: Michael: ‘I’m going to miss you so much.’ 
  • Indirect: Michael said he was going to miss me so much.
  • Third-person pronouns in direct speech don’t change in indirect speech:
  • Direct: Cousin: They are going to love their new house’. 
  • Indirect: My cousin said that they were going to love their new house.

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