1. An introduction to reported speech
In English, there are two ways of telling someone what someone else has said. Often we may choose to repeat their actual words using a quote structure or quotation, eg:
However, when the information that someone conveys is more important than their actual words, we may want to explain what they have said using our own words, eg:
She said that she was getting married on Saturday.
Joe asked whether she was going to invite her father to the wedding.
Examples like these are sometimes referred to as indirect speech or reported speech. Sentences in reported speech contain a reporting clause with a reporting verb like say or ask, eg:
This is followed by a reported clause showing someone’s original statement, question or thought, eg:
… (that) she was getting married on Saturday.
… whether she was going to invite her father to the wedding.
2. Reporting statements and thoughts
If we want to report a statement or someone’s thoughts, we use a reported clause which usually begins with the conjunction that, eg:
He said that he was going to resign.
She thinks that he has made the wrong decision.
However in informal speech and writing, that is often left out, especially with the most frequently used reporting verbs such as say and think, eg:
He said he was going to resign.
She thinks he has made the wrong decision.
The conjunction that is less likely to be left out with less common reporting verbs, especially those which have a more specific meaning than say or think, such as complain, explain, admit, agree etc, eg:
He agreed that it would have been better to wait.
She complained that the seats were uncomfortable.
Sometimes reporting verbs are followed by a direct object which refers to the ‘hearer’, ie: the person who the speech was originally directly towards, eg:
She told them that she was getting married on Saturday.
He reminded her that he was working late.
With some reporting verbs, it is possible to choose whether or not to mention the hearer:
I promised Mary/her that I wouldn’t be late
I promised I wouldn’t be late.
With certain reporting verbs, if we decide to mention the hearer, we must do so with a prepositional phrase, eg:
She admitted (to me) that she had made a stupid mistake.
He agreed (with Mary) that it would have been better to drive.
3. Reporting Questions
Questions put into report structures are often referred to as reported questions or indirect questions, though they are not followed by question marks. Eg:
“Did the children enjoy the play?” – I asked her if the children had enjoyed the play.
Where do you live?” – He asked me where I lived.
The most common verb used for reporting questions is ask, though verbs such as inqure/enquire are sometimes used to report questions in a more formal way.
Some types of question can be answered with a simple yes / no. These types of questions are therefore often referred to as yes/no questions, eg:
Do you speak Italian?
Does she like her new job?
To report a yes/no question, we use whether or if in the reported clause, eg:
She asked him if he spoke Italian.
I asked whether she liked her new job.
If is generally used when the speaker has suggested one possibility that might be true, eg:
I asked her if she had met Sophie before.
Whether is generally used when the speaker has suggested one or more possibilities, eg:
I asked her whether she’d prefer to eat out or cook a meal at home.
Wh-questions cannot be answered by yes or no. They are questions in which someone asks for information about an event or situation, eg:
What time is he coming?
Who were you talking to?
Where did you put my car keys?
To report a wh-question, we use a wh-word at the beginning of the reported clause, eg:
I asked what time he was coming.
She asked who I was talking to.
He asked me where I had put his car keys.
When the details of the reported question are clear from the context, it is sometimes possible to leave out everything except the wh-word, especially in spoken English, eg:
John seemed angry with the children, so I asked why.
If the original wh-question consists of what, which or who followed by be + noun complement, the complement is often placed before be in the reported clause, eg:
“What’s the problem?” – I asked what the problem was. (more natural than I asked what was the problem)