Reported Speech


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Brief introduction to Reported Speech for students of English. Includes a revision of tenses which usually go through "backshift" when reporting in the past tense. It also includes questions and orders in reported speech.

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Reported Speech

  1. 1. REPORTED SPEECH AND DIRECT SPEECH INTRODUCTION. When we want to quote somebody’s words or thoughts, we can do it in two ways. We can try to give the exact words that were said or that we imagine that were used. We call this way of quoting direct speech. Usually the words quoted are introduced by say or think ( or exclaim, suggest, reply,... in literary writing); in writing, quotation marks are used. So he comes into the pub and says ‘I’ll have a pint.’ And then I thought ‘Well, does he really mean it?’ In the case of reported speech (also called indirect speech) we talk about the idea that was expressed without quoting the exact words that were used, and we connect it more closely to our own sentence, for example, by using that or whether. The conjunction that is usually left out after the commonest verbs of saying and thinking, particularly in conversational style. So he comes into the pub and says (that) he’ll have a pint. And then I wondered whether he really meant it. In reported speech, the tenses, word-order, pronouns and other words may be different from those in the original sentence. And, in some cases, words may disappear or be expressed in other ways (yes, no, well, exclamations and question-tags, for example, cannot be fitted into the reported speech construction.) ‘ Yes, I suppose so,’ he said. ‘It’s difficult, isn’t it?’ He agreed unenthusiastically, saying that it was difficult.
  2. 2. TENSES IN REPORTED SPEECH. In reported speech we do not give the person’s exact words. Instead, we report his or her idea using the same tenses and pronouns as we use in reporting the rest of the situation we are talking about: ‘I’m looking for Helen.’ Alan was looking for Helen this morning. Alan said that he was looking for Helen. When the ‘reporting’ verb is past, we do not normally use the same tenses as the original speaker. The verbs are ‘more past’ because we are not talking at the same time as the speaker was. This is sometimes called ‘backshift’. Compare: direct speech reported speech ‘I like peaches.’ He said he liked peaches. ‘Is it raining?’ He asked if it was raining. ‘I didn’t recognize you.’ She explained that she hadn’t recognized me. ‘You have annoyed the dog.’ I told her she had annoyed the dog. ‘I was joking about the price.’ He said he was (had been) joking about the price. ‘I hadn’t seen her before that You said you hadn’t seen her before that day. day. ‘We shall (will) be late.’ I was afraid we should (would) be late. ‘I can swim.’ She thought she could swim. ‘It may rain.’ They said it might rain. ‘You could (might) be right.’ I felt he could (might) be right. ‘That should (ought to) be interesting.’ She said it should (ought to) be interesting. ‘I must go.’ He said he must (had to) go. However, we do not find backshift in the following cases: a. Sometimes, even after past ‘reporting’ verbs, the tenses are the same as the original speaker’s. This happens when we are reporting people saying things that are still true when we report them, when we are talking about ‘universal truths’, or about habitual or repeated actions. For example: ‘The earth goes round the sun.’ Galileo proved that the earth goes round the sun. ‘I’m only 28.’ She told me the other day that she is only 28. b. When the ‘reporting’ verb is present, future, or present perfect, the tenses used are usually the same as those in the speaker’s original words. Compare: ‘Will I be in time?’ She wants to know if she’ll be in time. ‘Was your operation successful?’ He’ll certainly ask you if your operation was successful.’ I don’t want to go.’ I’ve already told you that I don’t want to go.
  3. 3. REPORTED QUESTIONS. Reported questions do not have the same word-order as direct questions often have. Do is not used. Questions marks are not used. Before questions which do not have a question-word, if or whether is used in reported speech. Common ‘reporting’ verbs in reported questions are: want to know, ask, wonder, and inquire (also spelled enquire). Note the following examples: ‘How do you feel?’ The nurse asked how I felt. ‘Why is she driving so fast?’ I wondered why my mother was driving so fast. ‘Where are all the people?’ Mary couldn’t understand where all the people were. ‘Do you want the town centre?’ The bus driver asked if/whether I wanted the … ‘Can I help you?’ I don’t know whether I can help you or not. ‘How long have you been here?’ She inquired how long I had been there. Note that Shall I...? can have two meanings. It can be used to ask for information (in this case the question is reported with will or would) or to ask for orders, instructions, etc.(the question then is reported with should). ‘Shall I be in Edinburgh in time for supper if I catch the 10.30 train?’ He wants to know if he will be in Edinburgh in time for supper if he catches the 10.30 train. He asked if he would be in Edinburgh in time for supper if he caught the 10.30 train. ‘Shall I carry your bag for you?’ He wants to know if he should carry your bag. He asked if he should carry your bag. ORDERS, REQUESTS AND ADVICE IN REPORTED SPEECH. Orders, requests, advice and suggestions are often reported by using an infinitive (or a negative infinitive for negative requests, advice, etc.). ‘Be careful crossing the street.’ I told Andrew to be careful crossing the street. ‘Could you be quiet after midnight?’ The old lady has asked us to be quiet after midnight. ‘The best thing would be to raise The accountants advise us to raise prices by 8%. prices by 8%.’ ‘Don’t worry, John. ’Margaret told me not to worry. A that-construction, should (British English), or a subjunctive (American English) are also possible. ‘You must fill in a form.’ The policeman told me that I had to fill in a form. ‘Why don’t you meet us I suggested that he should meet us again a month later. next month?’ (BrE) I suggested that he meet us again a month later. (AmE) ‘HERE-AND-NOW WORDS’. Words like here, there, this, that, today, tomorrow, yesterday, next, last, now and then can be called ‘here-and-now words’. Their exact meaning depends on where and when they are used, and they may have to be changed in reported speech (unless the words are reported immediately, and in the same place where they were spoken). There are no exact rules for changing these words: we use whatever expressions will make the meaning clear in the situation.