Direct vs. indirect speech

When we repeat what other people say, we have two choices: we can use direct speech or indirect speech. 

The difference lies in whether we choose to quote the exact words or not.  

When using direct speech, quotation marks will indicate the speaker is repeating the words literally. 

Direct speech:

  • He said, “I’ll call you tonight” but never did.

  • The teacher asked him, “Why are you late for class again?”

If we turn these examples into indirect speech, we would need to make some changes to the sentences:

Indirect speech:

Let’s analyze these changes in detail. 

Changing tenses in reported speech

So you want to report what someone has said, what should you take into account? 

Keeping these two points in mind will be helpful:

Let me elaborate with this example:

Let’s imagine it’s Friday night, and I’m having a conversation with my friend Bruno. We’re trying to decide on a restaurant for dinner, so I suggest one and he says,

If I want to repeat what Bruno said to another friend, I have two options:

If it’s the same night (Friday), I’d say:

But if it’s a different night, let’s say Saturday, I’d say:

As you can see, the time of speaking is important. 

In the first sentence, it’s still the same day and the situation hasn’t happened yet so the present tense makes perfect sense. In this context, the reporting verb (in this case say/said) could be present or past indistinctly. 

Now, in the second example, we’re reporting on an event that occurred the day before, thus making the past tense the right choice.

Let’s look at another example:

Imagine your sister is trying to tell you something, and you don’t quite catch it because you’re watching a show. So, your brother turns to you and says:

But if your brother brought it up later on or on another day, he might say:

If this point is still confusing, confider this scenario:

Let’s say you’re on the phone with a friend who is inviting you and your partner out for dinner. You turn to your partner and say:

Since the conversation is happening at the same time, we need to use the present tense.

But what if you told your partner about the dinner after hanging up? Would you change the tense? Yes, but only the tense of the reporting verb:

And finally, what about this situation?

The past tense seems appropriate because dinner won’t happen. The situation changed. So the tense we need to use is whatever feels natural for the situation. 

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