You Talkin’ To Me?

By bogotapost October 10, 2014
English Grammar, Reported Speech

She said she loved me….She said she loved me. Photo: Jeff Kubina CC BY-SA 2.0

The Bogota Post reports back on a part of English not commonly used by Spanish speakers


When speaking Spanish, when we’re talking about something someone else said, it’s common to simply repeat the words that were used verbatim*, or to use the present tense. However, in English we change the words said using a tense called reported speech. It’s important not just to understand how reported speech works and the formation rules, but why we use it instead of direct speech.

So, why do we use reported speech? Its main function is allowing us to communicate how something was said, rather than simply what was said. We do this in two main ways: by not reporting the parts we feel are not necessary and by using different verbs to report the conversation.

For example, I often speak to my mother for an hour or more. When my friends ask me what she said, I don’t have time to quote her entire speech, nor would it make any sense to. So, an hour’s worth of conversation might be reported as “she said she was happy and she might visit my grandmother next week”.

Reported speech means that you don’t have to use your fingers to make “bunny fingers” all the time, which frankly makes everyone look terribly inelegant. It’s bad enough that not enough men wear hats or cufflinks nowadays, one doesn’t want to see an outbreak of “air quotations” as well.

Finally, we use reported speech because it sounds correct. Using a lot of direct speech will allow you to communicate, but will also make you sound strange. The higher your level becomes, the more strange this will sound, as it will be out of place with the rest of your speech, and people will expect more from you. It’s an important class marker as well in English: not using reported speech is seen as very casual and informal, not usually in a good way.

English Grammar, Reported Speech

‘Do you like ice-cream?’….He asked me if I liked ice-cream. Photo: Paul Wilkinson CC BY 2.0

The form is fairly simple, but does require some work. First, subjects and objects will change: “I love you” = She said she loved me. Next, the tense will go back: “I love you” = She said she loved me. The tense goes back ‘1 past’ although when things are still true we sometimes keep the present tense, eg. “She said she still works in CAN”. If you’re not sure on this part, a quick google should bring up a table demonstrating the way each tense shifts back in reported speech.

Questions also change to statements in reported speech. They generally use the verb ask, with if/whether functioning as an auxiliary for closed questions. Eg “Did you see the film?” = He asked me if/whether I had seen the film.
As questions are no longer questions in reported speech, we also have to get rid of the auxiliary verb do/did. Therefore, “Do you like ice cream?” = He asked me if I liked ice cream NOT He asked me did I like ice cream.

In questions using the question words who, where, why etc, these go before the statement: eg Where have you been? = He asked me where I had been. “Who were you with?” = He asked me who I had been with.

When we are reporting a statement we usually use say or tell. Students are often unsure of the difference between them. Basically, say is very general and does not imply a connection of any kind. Tell always describes who the communication is with. Note that because of this, say never takes an object, but tell always takes an object. “I told him…” “he said…”

For questions, the most common reporting verb is ask. Some students like to use ‘question’ as a mistranslation of preguntar, however in English this is quite aggressive – usually the police question people. It’s better in most cases to stick with ask.

For more advanced students, consider investigating other reporting verbs. Although say and tell are the most commonly used, both for learners and native speakers, there are many many more. Have a look through the paper (this edition or previous editions) and see how many you can find!

*a Latin word meaning “exactly as said”

By Oli Pritchard