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Reported speech: indirect speech

Indirect speech focuses more on the content of what someone said rather than their exact words. In indirect speech, the structure of the reported clause depends on whether the speaker is reporting a statement, a question or a command.
 directindirectreported clause
statement‘I’m tired,’ I said.I told them (that) I was tired.that-clause
question‘Are you ready?’ the nurse asked Joel.

‘Who are you?’ she asked.
The nurse asked Joel if/whether he was ready.

She asked me who I was.

commandLeave at once!’ they ordered.They ordered us to leave at once.to-infinitive clause

Indirect speech: reporting statements

Indirect reports of statements consist of a reporting clause and a that-clause. We often omit that, especially in informal situations:

The pilot commented that the weather had been extremely bad as the plane came in to land. (The pilot’s words were: ‘The weather was extremely bad as the plane came in to land.’)

I told my wife I didn’t want a party on my 50th birthday. (that-clause without that) (or I told my wife that I didn’t want a party on my 50th birthday.)

Indirect speech: reporting questions

Reporting yes-no questions and alternative questions

Indirect reports of yes-no questions and questions with or consist of a reporting clause and a reported clause introduced by if or whetherIf is more common than whether. The reported clause is in statement form (subject + verb), not question form:

She asked if [S] [V]I was Scottish. (original yes-no question: ‘Are you Scottish?’)

The waiter asked whether [S]we [V]wanted a table near the window. (original yes-noquestion: ‘Do you want a table near the window?)

He asked me if [S] [V]I had come by train or by bus. (original alternative question: ‘Did you come by train or by bus?’)

Reporting wh-questions

Indirect reports of wh-questions consist of a reporting clause, and a reported clause beginning with a wh-word (who, what, when, where, why, how). We don’t use a question mark:

He asked me what I wanted.

Not: He asked me what I wanted?

The reported clause is in statement form (subject + verb), not question form:

She wanted to know who [S]we [V]had invited to the party.

Not: … who had we invited …

Whowhom and what

In indirect questions with who, whom and what, the wh-word may be the subject or the object of the reported clause:

I asked them who came to meet them at the airport. (who is the subject of came; original question: ‘Who came to meet you at the airport?’)

He wondered what the repairs would cost. (what is the object of cost; original question: ‘What will the repairs cost?’)

The reported clause is in statement form (subject + verb), not question form:

She asked us what [S]we [V]were doing. (original question: ‘What are you doing?’)

Not: She asked us what were we doing?

Whenwherewhy and how

We also use statement word order (subject + verb) with whenwhere, why and how:

I asked her when [S]it [V]had happened (original question: ‘When did it happen?’).

Not: I asked her when had it happened?

I asked her where [S]the bus station [V]was. (original question: ‘Where is the bus station?’)

Not: I asked her where was the bus station?

The teacher asked them how [S]they [V]wanted to do the activity. (original question: ‘How do you want to do the activity?’)

Not: The teacher asked them how did they want to do the activity?

Indirect speech: reporting commands

Indirect reports of commands consist of a reporting clause, and a reported clause beginning with a to-infinitive:

The General ordered the troops to advance. (original command: ‘Advance!’)

The chairperson told him to sit down and to stop interrupting. (original command: ‘Sit down and stop interrupting!’)

We also use a to-infinitive clause in indirect reports with other verbs that mean wanting or getting people to do something, for example, advise, encourage, warn:

They advised me to wait till the following day. (original statement: ‘You should wait till the following day.’)

The guard warned us not to enter the area. (original statement: ‘You must not enter the area.’)

Indirect speech: present simple reporting verb

We can use the reporting verb in the present simple in indirect speech if the original words are still true or relevant at the time of reporting, or if the report is of something someone often says or repeats:

Sheila says they’re closing the motorway tomorrow for repairs.

Henry tells me he’s thinking of getting married next year.

Rupert says dogs shouldn’t be allowed on the beach. (Rupert probably often repeats this statement.)

Newspaper headlines

We often use the present simple in newspaper headlines. It makes the reported speech more dramatic:



Indirect speech: past continuous reporting verb

In indirect speech, we can use the past continuous form of the reporting verb (usually sayor tell). This happens mostly in conversation, when the speaker wants to focus on the content of the report, usually because it is interesting news or important information, or because it is a new topic in the conversation:

Rory was telling me the big cinema in James Street is going to close down. Is that true?

Alex was saying that book sales have gone up a lot this year thanks to the Internet.


‘Backshift’ refers to the changes we make to the original verbs in indirect speech because time has passed between the moment of speaking and the time of the report.


direct speech

indirect speech

I said, ‘I’m not very happy at work.’

I told her I was not very happy at work.

They said: ‘We’re going home.’

They told us they were goinghome.

He said, ‘Jane will be late.’

He said that Jane would be late.

‘I’ve been working,’ she said.

She said she had been working.

‘What happened to make her so angry?’ he asked.

He asked what had happened to make her so angry.

In these examples, the present (am) has become the past (was), the future (will) has become the future-in-the-past (would) and the past (happened) has become the past perfect (had happened). The tenses have ‘shifted’ or ‘moved back’ in time.

Backshift changes



present simple

past simple

present continuous

past continuous

present perfect simple

past perfect simple

present perfect continuous

past perfect continuous

past simple

past perfect simple

past continuous

past perfect continuous

future (will)

future-in-the-past (would)

past perfect

past perfect (no change)

The past perfect does not shift back; it stays the same:

Direct speech

Indirect speech

He asked: ‘Had the girls already left?’

He asked if the girls had already left.

Modal verbs

Some, but not all, modal verbs ‘shift back’ in time and change in indirect speech.

direct speech

indirect speech



‘We will be there,’ he promised.

He promised they would be there.

will becomes would


She said, ‘I shallneed more money.’

Shall I open it?’ she asked.

She said she wouldneed more money.

She asked if she should open it.

shall usually becomes would

in reported questions, shallbecomes should


‘I can see you at 2.30,’ he added.

He added that he could see me at 2.30.

can becomes could


‘I may be back later,’ she said.

‘You may wait in the hallway,’ he said.

She said she mightbe back later.

He said we couldwait in the hallway.

may (possibility) becomes might

may (permission) becomes could


She said, ‘You mustpay by 30th April.’

‘It must be awful to live in such a noisy place,’ she said.

She said we had topay by 30th April.

She said it must be awful to live in such a noisy place.

must (obligation) usually becomes had to

must(speculation) does not change


‘We could sell it for about 2,000 euros,’ he said.

He said they couldsell it for about 2,000 euros.

no change


‘You should go there immediately,’ she said.

She said I shouldgo there immediately.

no change


‘I would buy it if I had the money,’ he said.

He said he wouldbuy it if he had the money.

no change


‘It might snow tonight,’ he warned.

He warned that it might snow that night.

no change


‘You needn’t come till six o’clock,’ he said.

He said we needn’tcome till six o’clock.

no change

We can use a perfect form with have + –ed form after modal verbs, especially where the report looks back to a hypothetical event in the past:

He said the noise might have been the postman delivering letters. (original statement: ‘The noise might be the postman delivering letters.’)

He said he would have helped us if we’d needed a volunteer. (original statement: ‘I’ll help you if you need a volunteer’ or ‘I’d help you if you needed a volunteer.’)

Used to and ought to do not change in indirect speech:

She said she used to live in Oxford. (original statement: ‘I used to live in Oxford.’)

The guard warned us that we ought to leave immediately. (original statement: ‘You ought to leave immediately.’)

No backshift

We don’t need to change the tense in indirect speech if what a person said is still true or relevant or has not happened yet. This often happens when someone talks about the future, or when someone uses the present simple, present continuous or present perfect in their original words:

He told me his brother works for an Italian company. (It is still true that his brother works for an Italian company.)

She said she’s getting married next year. (For the speakers, the time at the moment of speaking is ‘this year’.)

He said he’s finished painting the door. (He probably said it just a short time ago.)

She promised she’ll help us. (The promise applies to the future.)

Indirect speech: changes to pronouns

Changes to personal pronouns in indirect reports depend on whether the person reporting the speech and the person(s) who said the original words are the same or different.



I don’t want to shock people,’ Tom said.

Tom said he didn’t want to shock people.

different speakers (Ichanges to he)

I’ll look after Toby,’ Isaid.

I said I would look after Toby.

same speaker (no change)

You need to be here at nine o’clock,’ Georgetold Beatrice.

George told Beatrice she needed to be there at nine o’clock.

different speakers (you changes to she)

I hope you will join us tonight,’ I said to James.

I told James I hoped hewould join us that night.

same speaker (no change to Iyouchanges to he)

Indirect speech: changes to adverbs and demonstratives

We often change demonstratives (this, that) and adverbs of time and place (now, here, today, etc.) because indirect speech happens at a later time than the original speech, and perhaps in a different place.


direct speech

indirect speech

I said, ‘I’ll meet you here tomorrow.’

I told her I would meet her therethe next/following day.

She said, ‘I do not wish to discuss it at this moment in time.’

She said she did not wish to discuss it at that moment in time.

He said, “I want it now.”

He said he wanted it then/at that moment.

‘I finished the job three weeks ago,’ the boy protested.

The boy protested that he had finished the job three weeks before.

Typical changes to demonstratives, adverbs and adverbial expressions










the day before


the next/following day

two weeks ago

two weeks before



Indirect speech: typical errors

  • The word order in indirect reports of wh-questions is the same as statement word order (subject + verb), not question word order:

She always asks me where [S] [V]I am going.

Not: She always asks me where am I going.

  • We don’t use a question mark when reporting wh-questions:

I asked him what he was doing.

Not: I asked him what he was doing?

March 15, 2019

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