Learn Grammar: Reported speech

We use Reported speech when we want to repeat, or report, on what someone has said, or has been doing.

Reported speech poses a number of challenges, including changes of tense, deictic expression (e.g. here to there, yesterday to the day before) and word order changes (in reported questions). Some of the rules of use are rather abstract and can be difficult to communicate.

This post focuses on rules regarding changes in tense, and when to use the ‘back shift’ rule, whereby for instance present simple changes ‘back’ to past simple.

Tenses for changing to Reported speech using the back shift rule:

Present                                –             past

Present perfect                –             past perfect

Present modals                –             past modals

Past                                       –             past perfect

Past continuous               –             past perfect continuous

Past perfect                        –             no change

Let’s look at some examples:

I study Engineering.              He said he studied engineering.

present simple                            past simple

I’m reading.                                He said he was reading.

present continuous                   past continuous

John has finished.                    He said John had finished.

present perfect                            past perfect

Maria walked home.                  He said Maria had walked home.

past simple                                    past perfect

Liam was studying.                     He said Liam had been studying.

past continuous                            past perfect continuous

My car had disappeared.           He said his car had disappeared.

past perfect, no change

He will pay you.                              He said he would pay you.

present modal (e.g. will, can)     past modal (e.g. would, could)

A great way to practice using Reported speech as an English language learner is to follow these steps:

  1. Watch a short section from a favourite show and listen to one of the character speaking.
  2. Write down what they say (1 or 2 sentences).
  3. Check your dictation (what the person has said).
  4. Now change what the speaker has said (direct speech) into reported speech.

Using this technique you can watch, listen and enjoy while learning!

For more information don’t forget to watch our grammar lesson on the Chasing Time English TV channel: