Sunday, March 4, 2012

Reported speech - lesson and exercises

Constructing reported speech involves using a mixture of some basic rules and your common sense. When using the first doesn't sound natural, use the second. The main idea is that it should make sense to the listener.
This is a fairly detailed but not exhaustive look at reported speech. I hope to follow it up with some more advanced vocabulary and exercises fairly soon.

Click and Drop - Where you see this sign, mouse over for instructions

Basic principles

Exercise 1 - Convert the direct statements and questions into reported speech.

Pete: 'I was at a party recently.'
He told her .
Mary: 'Was it any good?'
She asked him .
Pete. 'It was a great party.'
He replied .
Mary: 'I wish I had been there.'
She said .

Basic rules

In both reported statements and questions

  • verbs usually go one tense back (backshifting)
  • pronouns, possessives and other determiners may have to be changed
  • time references may have to be made non-time-specific
  • place references may need to be changed


These are not fixed rules, but reflect that:
  • we usually, but not always, report what someone has said later, and use a reporting verb in a past tense.
  • the original speaker and the person they are talking to are usually different from the current speakers
  • times and and places mentioned in the original conversation are likely to have changed.

Additionally in reported questions

  • in the main question, change question order to statement order
  • in yes/no questions, add if or whether

The tense of the reporting verb

Although the reporting verb is usually in past simple, there are other possibilities. For example, past continuous is often used to report gossip, or to repeat what somebody has just been saying. Present tenses are sometimes used if what was said still seems relevant.

Exercise 2 - complete the sentences by using each form of say once only. There may be other possibilities.

1. But yesterday you you didn't want to go to the party!
2. Peter you're thinking of applying for that new job.
3. Meg's just phoned. She she's on her way, and we're to start without her.
4. I wonder if he anything about it at tomorrow's meeting.
5. Fiona many times that this project won't be easy.
6. Mary earlier that she didn't want to go, but then she changed her mind.
7. I I agreed with you, but you interrupted me.
8. Peter all along that this is what we should do, but nobody would listen.

The tense of the idea being reported

As we saw earlier, when we have a reporting verb in a past tense, the tense of the idea being reported is usually backshifted (goes back one). But if the idea is still true, we can use a present tense instead.
  • Patricia wasn't here yesterday. She said she was taking the day off.
  • Patricia isn't here today. She said she is taking the day off.
But even when something is still true, we often still put the main verb back one tense.
  • Patricia isn't here today. She said she was taking the day off.
Both are correct, so if the reporting verb is in the past, and you're not quite sure about the main verb, it's probably better to backshift.
If we don't believe the speaker, we use a past tense, even if the idea is still relevant.
  • She phoned in and said she was ill, but she sounds fine to me.
  • He said that the mess we're currently in wasn't his fault, but whose else could it be?

Time and place

We usually report things at a later time and in a different place to that of the original conversation. In this case we might need to change time and place references.

Exercise 3 - Enter one word in each box to make appropriate equivalents to the specific expressions of time and place, which you could use in reported speech

1. "I'll do it later today."
He said he'd do it later day. (4 letters)
2. "I'll speak to him tomorrow."
She said she'd speak to him the day (4 letters)
She said she'd speak to him the the day. (9 letters)
3. "I saw her yesterday."
He said he'd seen her the day . (6 letters)
He said he'd seen her the day. (8 letters)
4. "I'll do it right now."
She said she'd do it right . (4 letters)
5. "I'm busy now"
He said he was busy at time. (4 letters)
6. "Is this what you wanted?"
She asked me if was what I wanted. (4 letters)
7. "I haven't been here for very long."
She said she hadn't been for very long. (5 letters)
These are the expressions often used in tests, etc. In real life, we'd probably use a range of different time and place expressions.

Say or tell?

Exercise 4 - Complete the sentences with appropriate forms of say or tell. Use only one word for each gap.

1. She we were to wait here for her.
2. Has anyone you where we're meant to be meeting.
3. I got off for lying on the grass.
4. I never that learning a language was easy.
5. She him to leave her alone, so he did.
6. She she wanted to be alone, so I left.
7. I was to John only yesterday that he ought to ask her out.
8. Do you think he was the truth when he said that?
9. Can you the difference between Pepsi and Coke?
10. I'm totally useless at jokes.
11. Has he what time he's coming?
12. Every night she used to us a story.
13. They that this is a very good restaurant.
14. I've heard that Janie is having a party. Have you been invited?
15. You won't anyone else, will you?
16. You should have seen his face. It it all really.
17. The poster the concert started at eight.
18. As far as I can , we're nearly there.
19. With Johnny there's no what he'll do next.
20. It is often that a change is as good as a rest.

More reporting verbs

The most commonly used reporting verbs are say, tell, reply and ask. But sometimes we might want to vary our language a bit. Here are twenty more of the most common reporting verbs.

Exercise 5a - Match the reporting verbs with the direct statements.

admitted   · encouraged   · insisted   · invited   · persuaded   · promised   · recommended   · reminded   · suggested   · warned  
1. Come on, it's just another kilometre, you can do it.He    ...
2. Come on, you'd love it. You know you want to come really.He   ...
3. I'll definitely do it for you this weekend.She    ...
4. OK, it was me who took the last cake.She    ...
5. No arguing. I'm paying for the drinksShe    ...
6. Don't forget to water the plants.He    ...
7. Why don't we go to the cinema this evening?He    ...
8. Would you like to come to dinner on Saturday.They    ...
9. Careful! This coffee is really hot.He    ...
10. It's a beautiful island. I'm sure you'd have a great time there.They    ...

Exercise 5b - Match the reporting verbs with the direct statements.

accused   · advised   · agreed   · apologised   · decided   · denied   · offered   · refused   · regretted   · threatened  
1. Give me your money or else!He    ...
2. It wasn't me. I didn't do it.She    ...
3. Yes, you're absolutely right.He    ...
4. He stole my wallet. I saw him do it.He    ...
5. I wish I hadn't done that.She    ...
6. We're really sorry we're late.They    ...
7. Right, I've made my mind up. I'm going to have a pizza.He    ...
8. No, I'm not going to do it, and that's final.She    ...
9. Here, let me help you with that.She    ...
10. If I were you, I'd look for a better job.He    ...

Structures after reporting verbs 1

That clauses. We often use a that clause after reporting verbs - remember that a clause is like a simple sentence - subject + verb + whatever.
  • He said that he was leaving early.
  • She told him that she would go with him.
Infinitives and -ing forms - After some verbs we can use other patterns, for example:
  • verb + (not) to do (verb + to + infinitive)
    He promised to do it later
  • verb + sb to do (verb + object + to + infinitive)
    They told us to be there at eight.
  • verb + doing (verb + -ing form)
    She remembered telling him about it

Exercise 6a - Decide which verbs can be used with (sb) that + clause.
Exercise 6b - Then decide which of the 3 patterns on the right they can follow.

Verb(sb) that(not) to dosb (not) to do(not) doing
1.accuse (sb) of
5.apologise for
9.insist (on)
Note 1. We often leave out that, especially in informal spoken language, after some of the more common reporting verbs:
agree, mention, notice, promise, say, think
But after the less common reporting verbs, in a more formal style, and after the verbs - answer, argue, reply, we usually leave that in.

Note 2. insist can be used in two ways

  • insist that + clause
  • insist on something / doing something

Note 3. recommend, suggest and a few other verbs can also be used with should, or in a formal style with the subjunctive. See note below.

Practice with structures

Exercise 7 - Use one of the verbs in the box in each of the pairs of sentences. In the first sentence of each pair use a that- clause, in the second, use a to- infinitive or an -ing form

admit · agree · decide · deny · hope · promise · regret · threaten
1. "I'm going to buy the red one.",
She the red one.
She the red one.
2. "I wish I hadn't said that to him"
She that to him.
She that to him.
3. "I'll do it tomorrow. Honest.",
She it the following day.
She it the following day
4. "OK, it was me who spilt the milk",
He the milk.
He the milk.
5. "OK, I'll help them move the furniture.",
He them move the furniture
He them move the furniture
6. "I'll tell the teacher what you said",
She the teacher what I'd said.
She the teacher what I'd said.
7. "It wasn't me who did it."
He it.
He it.
8. "With any luck I'll be with you before dark",
She with us before dark.
She with us before dark.

Prepositions with reporting verbs

Exercise 8 - Complete the sentences with the correct prepositions.

about   · for   · of   · on   · to   · with  
1. She blamed me losing the contract.
2. The police officer accused me not stopping at a red light.
3. He convinced me the importance of studying hard.
4. He asked me my holiday.
5. He criticised her always being so lazy.
6. He told her all his trip to Thailand.
7. She alerted me the dangers of swimming in that part of the river.
8. He was threatened the sack if he kept coming in to work late.
9. She asked him some more time to think about it.
10. She warned him coming into work late.
11. He apologised profusely his behaviour.
12. She insisted paying for her own drinks.

Modals in reported speech

Some modals stay the same in reported speech, some can be backshifted.

Exercise 9 - Fill the gaps with suitable modal forms. Change the modal where possible or where necessary. Keep as close to the original as possible.

1. "Can we watch the TV news?"
She asked if we watch the TV news.
2. "I might be a bit late."
He said he be a bit late.
3. "You must do it now."
He told me I it then.
4. "Will you be coming back?"
She asked me if I be coming back.
5. "You should eat more vegetables."
She said I eat more vegetables.
6. "You must have been mistaken."
He said that I mistaken.
7. "Shall I print those reports now?"
She asked me if she print the reports.
8. "It may rain later."
She said it rain later.
9. Would you like a biscuit?
He asked me if I like a biscuit.
10. "You needn't do it now."
He said that I to do it then.
We can also use other forms, for example - needn't in direct speech can become didn't have to in reported speech, can can become wouldn't be able to, must could become was / were to (to express obligation)

Structures after reporting verbs 2 - Questions

Reported questions follow one of two patterns
  • Yes / No questions
    She asked me if / whether I was going to the party.
  • Wh- questions
    He enquired when we were leaving
Indirect questions follow the same patterns
  • He wondered if / whether it would rain the next day.
  • She wanted to know when it would be ready.
See the note on if or whether below.

Practice with reported questions

Last weekend you went to the party of an old friend from university, and now you are telling another friend, who wasn't there, all the details and what questions people asked you.

Exercise 10 - Complete the reported questions. For the sake of the exercise, use negative contractions - hadn't, wasn't etc, but no others. Where you have a choice between if and whether, use if.

1. "Do you know many people here?"
He asked me many people at the party.
2. "How long have you known Magda?"
She asked me Magda.
3. "Were you at university together?"
They asked me at university together.
4. "Are you doing anything tomorrow?"
She asked me anything the next day.
5. "What do you do for a living?"
They asked me for a living.
6. "How did you get here?"
She asked me there.
7. "Haven't we met somewhere before?"
He asked me before somewhere.
8. "When was Jenny's party?"
He asked me .
9. "Who was were you dancing with just then?"
She asked me a moment earlier.
10. "Would you like some more wine?"
She asked me some more wine.
11. "Why aren't you dancing?"
She asked me .
12. "Have you been here long?"
They asked me there long.
13. "What's the reason for the party?"
He asked me .
14. "Shall I call you a taxi?"
They asked me a taxi.
15. "Where did you meet Sammy?"
He asked me Sammy.

Structures after reporting verbs 3 - Orders and requests

Reported orders usually follow the same pattern as causative verbs - verb + object + to infinitive
  • He told the students to write an essay.
  • She asked me to get her some mushrooms while I was at the shops.
  • They forbade him to tell anyone about what he'd seen.
  • She ordered the boy to go and see the head teacher.
For more on causative verbs see my post here.

Structures after reporting verbs 4 - That clause + wh- clause

  • The long-distance sailor told reporters that what he wanted was a long, hot bath.
  • She said that whether we agreed or not, she was going ahead anyway.
  • They promised that whatever happened they would help us
  • She remembered that what had frightened her had been the noise.

Structures after reporting verbs 5 - Conditionals

Tenses go back, when this is possible, and when it wouldn't change the meaning of the conditional
  • 1st - "If you want breakfast, you'll have to make it yourselves."
    She said that if we wanted breakfast, we'd have to make our it ourselves.
  • 3rd - "If I hadn't slowed down, we would have hit the deer."
    He told us that if he hadn't slowed down he would have hit the deer
In reported first conditionals, tenses generally go back. In third conditionals, tenses cannot go any further back, so they stay the same. But with second conditionals it's a little more complicated.
Second conditionals can be divided into three types:
  • "If we took a taxi, we'd get there faster." - a tentative suggestion about the future
  • "If I won the lottery, I'd go on a cruise." - an imaginary idea about the future
  • "If I knew the answer, I'd tell you." - something which is contrary to present fact
Look what happens if we put them back a tense.
  • He suggested that if they had taken a taxi, they'd have got there faster.
  • She said that if she had won the lottery, she'd have gone on a cruise.
  • I told him that if I had known the answer, I'd have told him.
It now sounds as if they never happened, as in a third conditional. In the third example that's true, but not necessarily true in the first two. They might well have taken a taxi after that tentative suggestion, and it is possible, if unlikely, that she might at some stage in the future win the lottery.
So in second conditionals, where, at the time of speaking, the result was still possible, we don't backshift, but leave the tenses the same.
But if we didn't backshift in the third example, where something is contrary to present fact, it would sound as if I might still tell him the answer in the future, when in fact the opportunity has passed. So in this case we need to backshift.
  • He suggested that if they took a taxi, they'd get there faster. - no change
  • She said that if she won the lottery, she'd go on a cruise. - no change
  • I told him that if I had known the answer, I'd have told him. - tenses backshifted

Practice with reporting conditionals

Exercise 11 - Fill in the verbs in suitable tenses. Use contractions for negatives - hadn't, wouldn't etc, but for nothing else. Where you have a choice between was and were, use was.

1. "If we buy it on the internet, we'll get a better price."
She said that if we    it on the internet, we    a better price.
2. "If you were a bit harder working, your colleagues would respect you more"
His manager told him that if he    a bit harder working, his colleagues    him more.
3. "If we had some matches, we could light a fire."
She said that if they    some matches, they could    a fire.
4. "If you hadn't forgotten my birthday, I wouldn't be so upset."
She told me that if I    her birthday, she    so upset.
5. "If you clear away the supper things, I'll put the children to bed."
6. She said that if I    away the supper things, she    the children to bed.
7. "If you weren't so lazy, you might have passed your exam."
She told me that if I    so lazy, I    my exam.
8. "If it hadn't been for my wife's support, I don't know what I would have done."
He said that if it    for his wife's support, he    what he would have done.
9. "If I hadn't qualified as a doctor, I would have liked to have been a pilot".
She said that if she    as a doctor, she    to have been a pilot.
10. "If we leave right now, we will be just in time for the bus."
He said that if we    right then, we    just in time for the bus.

Distancing with passive reporting structures

Passive structures are sometimes used to distance the information we are giving, when perhaps we aren't 100% sure, or when we don't want to mention the people involved. These forms are often used in newspapers and more formal writing. There are four main patterns:
  • 1. It + passive verb + that + clause
  • It is sometimes said that Spanish is the easiest language to learn to speak badly.
  • It has been calculated that there are now more non-native speakers of English than native speakers.
  • Verbs commonly used like this include:
  • 2. Subject + passive verb + to + infinitive
  • The results are expected to be announced tomorrow
  • The Prime Minister is thought to be considering an early election.
  • Verbs commonly used like this include:
  • believe, expect, report, say, think, understand
  • 3. It + passive verb + to + infinitive
  • It is forbidden to smoke on the premises.
  • It has been proposed to build a new civic centre.
  • Verbs commonly used like this include:
  • 4. There + passive verb + to + infinitive
  • There is said to be a storm on the way.
  • There are thought to be around 300 billion stars in the Milky Way.
  • Note that the verb agrees with the real subject (storm, 300 billion stars).

Passively reporting bats (adapted from Wikipedia)

Photo of Big-eared Townsend bat from Wikipedia

Exercise 12 - Read the text, then fill each gap with one word.

It is said (1)    the only mammal naturally capable of true and sustained flight is the bat. Other mammals said (2)    fly, such as flying squirrels and gliding possums glide rather than fly, and can only glide for short distances.
Bats (3)    thought to represent about 20% of all classified mammal species worldwide and (4)    are calculated to be about 1,240 bat species in the world. There (5)    sometimes thought to have been one single common bat ancestor, from which all bat species have evolved.
It (6)    believed that about 70% of bats are insectivores, with most of the rest thought (7)    be fruit eaters, and a very few carnivores. There (8)    thought to be bats in almost every habitat available on Earth, with the exception of the two polar regions. In many places they (9)    considered to play a vital role in pollinating seeds and controlling the numbers of insects pests.
It has (10)    contended that Kitti's hog-nosed bat is the smallest extant species of mammal, although claims have also been made for the Etruscan shrew. (11)    is generally agreed that the largest species of bat is the giant golden-crowned flying fox, which (12)    said to have a wingspan of 1.5 m.

If or whether?

In yes/no reported and indirect questions we can usually either if or whether.
  • He asked if/whether I was going finish the article on time.
  • I wondered whether/if I would ever see her again.
But after the verbs advise, consider and discuss, we prefer whether.
  • They considered whether or not to stay another night, but finally decided to move on.
  • We discussed whether to buy a new car this year, or leave it to next.
We also prefer whether before to-infinitives and after prepositions.
  • He said he was going to the cinema but I couldn't decide whether to go with him or not.
  • We argued for ages about whether dogs were friendlier than cats.
You can read more about this on my post Whether (or not) to use whether (or not).

Constructions with should or the subjunctive

A small number of reporting verbs can be used with should or in the subjunctive. Verbs used this way include:
advise, beg, demand, insist, prefer, propose, recommend, request, suggest
The present subjunctive is the same as the first form, and is used for all persons. The only difference from normal indicative is in the 3rd person singular. The same subjunctive firm is also used with past reporting verbs.
In British English this is considered rather formal, and we either use an -ing form, where that is possible, or should + first form. In informal language the normal indicative is also sometimes used in British English, though this is not so common in American English.
  • He recommended booking early -ing form
  • He recommended that she book early subjunctive
  • He recommended that she should book early should
  • He recommended that she booked early indicative

imply and infer

Some people get a bit worked up about the use of these two words.
The primary meanings of imply and infer look at similar situations from opposite angles.
  • imply - to suggest something without actually saying it
    • He implied that I was lying
    • These figures imply that something is wrong
  • infer - to decide or deduce something from the information you have
    • We can infer from his red face that he is probably lying.
    • Looking at these figures, I would infer that something is wrong.
But infer is often used in spoken English with the same meaning as imply. This is considered incorrect by many people, and it is probably best to try and stick to the standard meanings.
There is a very good short discussion at the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, a very long, detailed one at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and a nice pithy one at Common Errors


As well as the links below, I've drawn heavily from:


EFL / ESL sites

Academic sites



Fukaeri said...

I like your blog very much, it's good to find website for advanced speakers, it's really helpful:) I would like to ask about exercise 3,
example 3: I think it should be: He said HE had seen her...

Warsaw Will said...

Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad you find the blog useful. You are, of course, quite right and I've now corrected it. Thanks for that.

Marie said...

I find your blog fascinating! Thank you for such a detailed explanation of Reported speech.

I've noticed two errors in 'Practice with reported questions' section Ex.10:

8. "When was Jenny's party?"
Answer: He asked me when Magda's party had been. (multiple personality)))

9. "Who was were you dancing with just then?" (was is an extra word).

Warsaw Will said...

Hi Marie. Oops! Thanks for that. And for the comment.

Unknown said...

I wish you kept running this absorbing blog!

Warsaw Will said...

@Jaguar - thanks for that. I think I got a bit "grammared out", and also got into other (language related) things, like trying to explain English grammar on Duolingo, but perhaps I'll come back to it some day.

somdara said...

Hi! I like your blog very much, it's good to find website for advanced speakers, it's really.



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