Indirect Speech


Notes on the Reported Speech video

watch the Reported Speech video

  • This video covers the sentence structuring for declarative sentences.  Interrogative sentences and imperative sentences are structured a little differently in reported speech; we'll get to those in later videos.

  • Reported Speech sentences are a type of complex sentences.

    • The first part (which identifies the speaker and introduces the 'speech') is the main/independent clause.

    • The reported speech clause (previously a quote) is a dependent/subordinate content clause.

  • Reported Speech almost always reports something that was said in the past.  However, one could also use it for future or hypothetical situations.

  • If you're starting with a sentence that identifies the speaker at the end of the sentence, simply move that part to the beginning of your sentence before you do the three steps.

  • The only reporting verb we use in this video is 'said', but there are plenty of others, include 'asked' and 'told', just to name a couple.  Many of those other reporting verbs have slightly different rules, so we'll go over them in a separate video.

  • 'That' is usually not necessary, but some sentences sound awkward without it.  It doesn't hurt to include 'that', so you should default to using it.

  • 'That' is the crux of the sentence (see our Indirect Questions video) because it serves to connect the two clauses while also acting as the direct object (and focus) of the first clause.  But while it serves a purpose, it has no meaning itself (unlike 'who' or 'if', for example), which is why 'that' can be excluded.

  • When you backshift the verb(s), that applies to the verbs that word originally spoken (the ones originally within the quotation marks); don't backshift the speaking verb (like 'said').

  • For point-of-view changes, even if you can be more concrete, it's usually best to continue using phrases relative to then (and not phrases relative to now).  For example, if you're reporting something from 1 day ago, you could change 'today' to 'yesterday', but often it's better to say 'that day'.

  • 'here' often changes to 'there', but you can also go in the opposite direction; if the direct speech said 'there', and that's where you are now, then you could change it to 'here'.  The same goes for 'this'/'that' and 'these'/'those'.



Notes on the Indirect Questions video

watch the Indirect Questions video

  • Polite questions and reported questions are often taught separately, but the order/structure of the sentences is the same.  The method of reported questions is essentially a merger between the method of polite questions and the method of reported speech; you really need to understand both of the other methods in order to do reported questions properly.

  • The introductory clauses listed for reported questions aren't all necessarily reporting a question that was actually asked, but could be referring to an issue that was addressed without a certain resolution, whether the subject didn't know (or forgot, doubted, etc.) or whether multiple people couldn't agree (they argued/debated)

  • Some introductory clauses are better for inquiries, while others are better for requests.



  • Could you tell me ...

  • I'd like to know ...

  • Do you know ...

  • Can I ask ...

  • Would you mind telling me ...

  • Do you mind me asking ...

  • Would you mind if I ask ...

  • Please let me know ...

  • Do you have any idea ...


  • I was wondering ...

  • I wonder ...

  • Could I ask ...

  • Would it be too much trouble ...

  • Is it a problem ...

  • Requests are more likely to be based off yes/no questions and begin their clauses with 'if' or 'whether' than they are to start with questions words.

  • There are more types of polite requests which use participial phrases instead of content clauses.  For example you could say "Would you mind handing me my purse?"  The requested verb ('handing' in this example) has no subject, and there is no crux.  However, the usage is the same as the indirect questions covered in the video.

  • We made up the term ‘crux’ as it applies to complex sentences, including Indirect Questions. ‘Crux’ alludes both to the pivot point of the sentence (when the sentence shifts from one clause to another) and to the key thing that needs to be addressed (with Indirect Questions, it’s what ultimately needs to be answered). We later found out that some grammarians already have a word for this: ‘complementizer’. We like ‘crux’ better.

  • In our Reported Speech video, our original Step 1 is to replace the comma and quotation marks with the word 'that'.  'That' is actually a crux word, so we didn't mention it again since 'what', 'who', 'if', and so on filled that same role.

  • Backshifting is used to avoid certainty or likelihood.  For conditionals, it's used for hypothetical situations.  For polite requests, it implies that the recipient has the option to refuse.  That's why it's considered more polite.  With this in mind, however, you can choose not to backshift to make the request stronger, perhaps to display confidence.

  • If the first clause (the polite expression) is backshifted, the second clause (the content) probably should be backshifted as well.  If the first isn't, then the second probably shouldn't, either.  Stay consistent.

    • Can I ask if you have any paperclips?

    • Could I ask if you had any paperclips?

  • Some of the polite expressions are backshifted because they are structured as requests themselves (a request for the speaker to ask a question or for the recipient to respond to the question).



Notes on the Backshifting video

watch the Backshifting video

  • Here's when we backshift:

    • to reference an action when its original context is now in the past (regardless of whether the action itself was/is in the past).

    • to express unlikelihood, impossibility, or uncertainty

      • in virtually every type of unreal situation.

      • as a polite request (as opposed to a forceful demand, which would use more confident words).

  • Since past simple gets backshifted to past perfect, did gets backshifted to had (and the main verb changes to the past participle form).  [see the backshifting printout]

  • Multi-word modals get backshifted according to the first word of the modal:

    • is able to was able to

    • have to > had to

    • are supposed to > were supposed to

    • [for more, see the backshifting printout]

  • There are only two reasons that you would change the main verb when backshifting:

    • There is no auxiliary verb, as with a positive sentence backshifted from present simple to past simple.

    • You add have, in which case you need to change the main verb to past participle.

  • Shall backshifts to should.  It's good to know, but since shall isn't terribly common anymore, we didn't include it in the video (although it is in our printout).

  • There are two ways to backshift must.

    • When must is used for deduction (present), it backshifts to must've (past).

    • When must is used for obligation (future), there is no direct backshift.  However, since it means the same as have to or need to, it can backshift to had to or needed to (past).

  • Backshifting past to past perfect is sometimes ignored in casual English; you can keep it past simple or past continuous so long as it doesn't cause confusion.

  • For negative verb phrases, not always comes after the first auxiliary verb.

    • couldn't > couldn't have

    • wasn't > hadn't been

    • etc.

  • When you have verb patterns, ([verb] to [verb] - or - [verb] [verb]ing), the first verb is typically what backshifts, while the second verb (the verbal) remains the same.

  • There are two main differences between unreal backshifting and reported backshifting (that we have found, anyway; let us know if you’ve identified another):

    • Future gets backshifted to present for most unreal situations but backshifted to future-in-the-past for reported speech.

    • ‘am’ and ‘is’ get backshifted to ‘was’ for reported speech, but get backshifted to ‘were’ for unreal situation (this is part of the subjuntive mood), especially in formal English.


Related Printouts


Next in the Series

Reporting Verbs

Said isn't the only verb we use for reported speech; it's just the most common one.  However, using other reporting verbs sometimes requires new rules, so we'll go over those.

Infinitive and Participial Phrases for Requests and Commands

After the introductory clause, we could use a participial phrase instead of a content clause and achieve the same effect.