Reported speech: the basics

by | May 14, 2020

We use reported speech to talk about what someone else said. You have to be careful to use the correct tense.

These are the basic rules. Some of them have alternative options, but they are very complicated. Therefore, unless you are a very advanced learner of English, it’s safer to use these rules, and you will always be correct.

If someone says something in the present simple or the present continuous, use the past simple or the past continuous to report it:

  • ‘I’m very happy.’ ‘She said she was very happy.’
  • ‘I’m making a chocolate cake.’ ‘She told us she was making a chocolate cake.’

If someone says something in the past simple, you can use the same tense or the past perfect to report it:

  • ‘I had soup for lunch.’
  • ‘He said he had soup for lunch’ 
  • ‘He said he’d had soup for lunch.’

If someone says something in the past continuous, you can use the same tense or the past perfect continuous:

  • ‘I was eating my dinner.’
  • ‘She explained that she was eating her dinner.’
  • ‘She explained that she had been eating her dinner.’

If someone says something in the present perfect or the present perfect continuous, use the past perfect or the past perfect continuous to report it:

  • ‘Tom’s gone to London.’
  • ‘She told me that Tom had gone to London.’
  • I’ve been trying to call you.’
  • ‘She said she had been trying to call me.’

The word that is usually optional in reported speech – you will see that in the examples above we have sometimes included it and sometimes left it out.

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Phrases for Conversations in English
About Liz Walter

About Liz Walter

Liz Walter is a freelance lexicographer, teacher and writer, living in Cambridge, UK. She worked for many years on Cambridge University Press's range of ELT dictionaries and now works with Kate Woodford on books about the English language. Her other interests include politics, growing vegetables and family holidays in her camper van. She tweets at @LizJWalter