Topic 30 – Direct and indirect speech

Topic 30 – Direct and indirect speech

I am going to divide this topic into several areas. First I will begin with an introduction including a brief definition both of direct and indirect speech. Then I will move on to deal explain in detain both direct and indirect speech. In the third area of this topic I will present two other modes of speech: free direct speech and free indirect speech.

There are several forms in which other people’s language may be reported. The most explicit ways are introduced by a reporting clause referring to the speaker and the act of communication in speech or writing (Robbie said, Robbie wrote), and maybe also to the person or people spoken to (Robbie told Kylie), to the manner of speaking or writing (Robbie said nervously), or to the circumstances of the speech act (Robbie said while biting his nails). The accompanying speech or writing is given in the reported clause, which can take the form of direct speech and indirect speech.

  • Direct speech gives the exact words used by the speaker or writer, they are usually enclosed by quotations marks: (Prince Charles told the Queen: “I want to marry Camille”).
  • Indirect speech (also called reported speech) gives the words as subsequently reported by someone. It usually takes the form of a subordinate clause introduced by “that”, although this conjunction is often omitted in informal contexts. (Prince Charles told the Queen he wanted marry Camille).

Two secondary modes related to the primary modes are free direct speech and free indirect speech, mainly used in literature. In both modes, there is no reporting clause; the act of communication is signalled by, for example, changes in the verb tenses.

After offering a brief definition of the different modes, I will begin by having a look at direct speech. We use direct speech when we repeat the original speaker’s exact words. Direct speech is mainly used in written dialogues. It is signalled by being enclosed in quotation marks. The reporting clause may occur before, within or after the direct speech. When it occurs in the middle or at the end of the sentence, the order of subject and verb can sometimes be inverted.

Prince Charles said: “I don’t want to be the king”

“I don’t want to be the king”, Prince Charles said

“I don’t want to be the king”, said Prince Charles

Inversion is most common when the verb is “said” and the subject is not a pronoun, and the reporting clause is in the middle. Reporting clauses like “said she” are archaic or literary.

Reporting clauses and quotation marks are often omitted in fiction writing when the identity of the speakers is obvious from the context. They are regularly omitted in written plays, in formal reports of meetings and in some types of headlines.

Some reporting verbs of speaking or thinking that are frequently used with direct speech are add, ask, declare, repeat, tell, answer, say (the most common one), reply, state, think. There are also numerous verbs indicating the manner of speaking: snap, sob, mumble, and mutter.

Let’s move on now to deal with indirect speech. In indirect speech we give the exact meaning of a remark of speech without necessarily using the speaker’s exact words. Indirect speech subordinates the words of the speaker in a that-clause within the reporting sentence.

Prince Charles told Camille that he could not marry her

When a report is conveyed through indirect speech, some changes are required, because the situation of the reporter may differ in certain aspects from that of the utterance of the original speaker. These changes may include tense forms of the verbs, time and references, personal pronouns and demonstratives.

When reporting statements in indirect speech, the reported verb may be in the present tense when we are reporting a conversation that is still going on or reporting a statement someone makes very often. In these cases, the validity of the statement holds for the present as much as for the time of the utterance.

Queen Elizabeth always says Camille will never be the Queen

When the reporting verb is in present simple, present perfect or future tense, we report the indirect speech without any change of tense.

Prince Charles says he is fed up with doing what his mother wants him to do

However, indirect speech is usually introduced by a reporting verb in the past tense. In this case that reference to the original no longer applies at the time that the utterance is reported, it is usually necessary to change the tense forms of the verbs used in the direct speech. This change of verb forms is called backshift.

Prince Charles told Camille: “We have to convince the Parliament to allow us to get married”

Prince Charles told Camille they had to convince the Parliament to allow them to get married

When the reporting verb is in the past tense, verbs in the reported speech are changed as follows:


present past

past past perfect

present perfect past perfect

past perfect past perfect

Thus, if we move into the past for the reporting clause, there is a corresponding shift into the past (or if necessary, further into the past) in the reported clause. Here are examples of each part of the rule:

  1. Charles said: “Camille is a great woman”

Charles said Camille was a great woman

  1. Charles explained: “We have love each other for years”

Charles explained they had loved each other for years

  1. “I have always wanted her to be my wife”, stressed Charles.

Charles stressed he had always wanted her to be his wife.

  1. Charles said “I had met her even before marrying Diana”.

Charles said he had even met her even before marrying Diana.

There is no change in 4 because the past perfect already expresses past in the past and no further backshift can be expressed. Backshift is optional when the time-reference of the original utterance is valid at the time of the reported utterance.

The Queen said: “Our family has always been very conservative.”

The Queen said their family has always been very conservative

In this sentence, past form may also be used, by optional application of the backshift rule, since its verb has a limited time-reference. The appropriateness of the present forms therefore depends on their reference at the time of the reported utterance.

Simple past and past continuous tenses in time clauses usually remained unchanged.

The Queen told Charles: “When you married Diana you lied about your feelings”

The Queen told Charles that when he married Diana he lied about his feelings

There are some further exceptions to backshift in which the tenses of the original sentence remained unchanged, such as most conditional sentences, “had better”, past tenses after “wish” and “would rather/sooner”, etc.

The Queen told Charles: “I would allow you to marry her if you had the permission of the Church”

The Queen told Charles she would allow him to marry her if he had the permission of the Church

Charles told the Archbishop: “I wish I could marry Camille”

Charles told the Archbishop he wished he could marry Camille

Apart from backshift, there are other changes affecting indirect speech. If the identities of the person speaking and the person addressed are not identical in the situations of the original and reported utterances, the personal pronouns need to be changed. Pronoun shift requires the shift of the 1st and 2nd person pronouns to 3rd person pronouns or to nouns when the persons referred to in the original utterance are absent in the reported utterance.

I’ll be loyal to her”, Charles promised.

Charles promised he would be loyal to her

You know I will always trust you”, Camille told Charles.

Camille told him that he knew she would always trust him.

Similarly, it may be necessary to change 3rd person pronouns to 1st or 2nd person pronouns. It is always very important to take the context into account.

The conversion from direct to reported speech also affects adverbs of time/place, and some other words. If the time or place relationship between the time and place references in the indirect speech and the time and place of the original have changed, it is necessary to make adjustments. Here is an example:

Charles told the Queen: “I bought some pearls for Camille yesterday”.

Charles told the Queen he had bought some pearls for Camille the day before.

Expressions of time and place change as follows:

now→ then

today→ that day

yesterday→ the previous day, the day before

tomorrow→ the next/following day, the day after

next week/month/year→ the following week/month/year

last week/month/year→ the previous week/month/year

the week/month/year before

a week/month/year ago→ the week/month/year before

this→ that, a/the

these→ those/some, the

here→ there

Let’s see now what happen when reporting modal verbs. If there is a change in time-reference, modal auxiliaries are back shifted from present tense to past tense even if the past tense forms do not normally indicate past time in direct speech.

“I may not go to your wedding”, Harry told Prince Charles.

Harry told Prince Charles he might not go to his wedding

Several modal auxiliaries have only one form. If a modal auxiliary in direct speech has no past tense equivalent, (this includes auxiliaries which are already past, such as could, would, might, as well as must, ought to, need and had better), then the same form remains in indirect speech.

Prince Charles told Harry: “You ought to be there”

Prince Charles told Harry he ought to be there

When meaning obligation, the past tense of “must” may be replaced by “had to” in indirect speech:

Charles told Camille: “You must get the people’s support”.

Charles told her that she had to get the people’s support.

So far I have focused on indirect statements, but questions, exclamations and commands can also be converted into indirect speech.

Let’s introduce reporting questions:

  1. In questions introduced by an interrogative particle (who, what, when, where, why, how, etc), this particle serves as a link between the introductory words and the reported question.

Charles asked Camille:”When do you want to get married?”

Charles asked Camille when she wanted to get married

  1. When we report open yes/no questions, the reported words are introduced by if or whether. The verb “ask” can be used with or without a personal object.

Charles asked “Would you like to marry in Windsor?”

Charles asked if she would like to marry in Windsor

Reported questions have the same word-order as statements: the subject precedes the verb.

Let’s see the reporting of commands or orders. Indirect commands or orders are usually expressed by the verb + personal object + (not) to infinitive.

Camille told Charles: Organize a big party

Camille told Charles to organize a big party

Commands may range from polite requests (1) to strict orders (2). The introductory verb used depends on the force of the command. For example:

“Will you be my best man?” Charles asked Prince William.

Charles asked Prince William to be his best man

“Don’t invite any European Royal House”, the Queen ordered.

The Queen ordered not to invite any European royal house.

We can use say + to infinitive to introduce an indirect command. We do not use a personal object with say:

“Buy a smart wedding dress”, Charles said to Camille

Charles said to buy a smart wedding dress

After explaining the main differences and changes between direct and indirect speech, I am going to make some reference to free indirect speech. It consists in reporting an utterance indirectly by back shifting the verb, while omitting the reporting clauses, which are the conventional signals of indirect speech.

DIRECT S.: Charles asked Camille: “Do you want to come to the US with me?

INDIRECT S.: Charles asked Camille if she wanted to go to the US with him.

FREE INDIRECT S.: Did you want to come to the US with me? (asked Charles)

I would like to finish off this topic by reflecting on the use of indirect speech. We use indirect speech constantly in everyday life, but we do not always repeat exactly what other people have said. The most important thing is that the “meaning” of what was said is not altered; the alteration of the speaker’s own words is unimportant, and often necessary in our everyday conversations.

To sum up, I began this topic with an introduction explaining the concepts of direct and indirect speech. Then I moved on to deal with each of them separately, and presented the changes that are necessary to transform direct speech into indirect. Finally I included a definition of free indirect speech.