Reported Speech: the Ultimate Gossip Guide for the Modern Professional

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Your boss told you to tell your client in the UK about an important deadline. How do you tell them (correctly)? Your colleague said something disastrous at your last meeting. How to you complain about it to your boss in the US? We use reported speech to tell others what someone said in the past.  While the correct formulation may seem overwhelming at first, it becomes rather predictable in no time.  Perhaps the trickiest aspects of reporting grammar are 1) associated grammar with certain verbs and 2) verb tense transformation.  In this guide, I’ll lay out the grammar constructions for the top 4 most common reporting verbs, as well as a comprehensive guide on how to transform verb tenses.  I’ve tried to keep this as concise as relevant as possible, but I cannot promise this grammar won’t put you to sleep. Let’s get started!

  1. REPORTING VERBS

The most common reporting verbs are ‘say’, ‘speak’, ‘tell’, and ‘ask’.  Interestingly, they also cause the most grammatical confusion. Study these tables and never mix up your constructions again!

Say/said

Use it to discuss THINGS.

SAY + SOMETHING SAY + SOMETHING + TO + SOMEONE SAY + SOMETHING + ABOUT + SOMEONE / SOMETHING

I always try to say “good morning” at work.

Officials said the economy would expand by a mere 0.1 percent this year.

The investigator said, “I’m not at liberty to discuss this case” to the reporter.

 

Your co-workers have said a lot of positive things aboutyou lately.

The reporter didn’t say much about the case.

Speak/spoke

Use it to discuss PEOPLE AND THINGS with others.

SPEAK + ABOUT + SOMEONE / SOMETHING SPEAK + TO+ SOMEONE + ABOUT + SOMEONE / SOMETHING

He spoke about his colleague’s behavior during the meeting.

The representative is preparing to speak about next steps.

I will speak to the director about that client.

I spoke to the head of the office about this issue.

Tell/told
Use it to RELAY INFORMATION to others

TELL + SOMEONE TELL + SOMEONE + ABOUT + SOMEONE / SOMETHING TELL + SOMEONE + TO DO + SOMETHING

Don’t worry.  I’ve told the Board.

I will be sure to tell the PR team.

Please tell the others about the meeting tomorrow.

I told them about the meeting yesterday.

Tell the interns to get off Facebook.

I told them to turn off their phones at work.

Ask/asked

Use it to ask QUESTIONS.

ASK + SOMEONE / SOMETHING ASK + SOMEONE + ABOUT + SOMETHING /  SOMEONE ASK + SOMEONE + TO DO + SOMETHING

I don’t know. Please ask the director.

I asked him, but he didn’t know either.

Then ask Google.

We have asked the consultant about current AML/CFT policy.

Bloomberg has asked us about our predictions for Q3.

We have asked the media to respect our privacy.

The client asked us to file the trademark application in Belarus.

If you tire of using the same old reporting verbs, try some of these more expressive options:

To assert

To demand

To indicate

To report

To relay

To inform

To share

To chime in

To propose

To recommend

To advise

To suggest

2. TENSE TRANSFORMATION

The basic rule: transform the direct speech verb tense to the earlier past tense form in reported speech. In reported questions, always add ‘if’ after the reporting verb.

Present tenses

Note that in continuous tense transformation, we only transform the ‘be’ verb.

DIRECT SPEECH REPORTED SPEECH

Simple Present

I work for the IT company, ABC LLC.”

“We charge 200 EUR for the service.”

Our company takes these matters seriously.”

Do you have experience drafting patent claims?”

Simple past

He/she said he/sheworked for the IT company, ABC LLC.

They indicated they charged 200 EUR for the service.

They asserted their company took those matters seriously.

They asked if I had experience drafting patent claims.

Present Continuous

I am creating a new company website.”

“The investigation is progressing well.”

We are preparing the customs watch application.”

Are you emailing him now?”

Past Continuous

He/she said he/she was creating a new company website.

They reported the investigation was progressing well.

They informed us they were preparing the customs watch application.

She asked if I was emailing him (then).

Past tenses

We do not transform past perfect because it’s already in the earliest past form.

DIRECT SPEECH REPORTED SPEECH

Simple Past

“They received the application.”

You finished the debugging.”

Did you finish that press release?”

Past Perfect

She said they had received the application.

He said I/you had finished the debugging.

He asked me if I had finished writing the press release.

Present Perfect

He has signed the patent.”

We have submitted the documents.”

Have youfollowed up with the client yet?”

Past Perfect

I said he had signed the patent.

They said they had submitted the documents.

The department head asked if we had followed up with the client.

Past Perfect

I had made a test purchase.”

“The students had finished their internship.”

Had they contacted you prior to this complaint?”

Past Perfect

He said he/she/Ihad made a test purchase.

The boss said the students had finished their internship.

The director asked if they had contacted us prior to their complaint.

Present Perfect Continuous

We have been building a new code.”

“The CEO has been making another proposal.”

Has the team been making any progress?”

Past Perfect Continuous

They said they had been building a new code.

You said the CEO had been making another proposal.

She asked me if the team had been making any progress.

Past Continuous

“The chairman was writing the copyright claims.”

“The scammers were trying to hack the firewall.”

Was the reporter putting a lot of pressure on you?”

Past Perfect Continuous

He said the chairman had been writing the copyright claims.

They said the scammers had been trying to hack the firewall.

The PR chief asked if the reporter had been putting a lot of pressure on us.

 Future tenses


DIRECT SPEECH

DIRECT SPEECH

Future Simple: “Will” and “Shall”

The new IP legislation will be decided soon.

The PTO director shall speak in Chicago.

Will you attend the conference?”

Future “Would”

She said the new IP legislation would be decided soon.

They said the PTO director would speak in Chicago.

He asked if I would attend the conference.

Future Continuous “Will”

I will be discussing the situation on Monday.

I won’t be making any purchases.

Will you be making any short-term investments?”

Future Continuous “Would”

The reporter said he would be discussing the situation on Monday.

She said she wouldn’t be making any purchases.

They asked if we would be making any short-term investments.

Future ‘be’ + going to

I am going to buy some bitcoin next week.

We are going to handle the case in London.

Are you going to ask them to leave their contact information?”

Past ‘be’ + going to

She said she was going to buy some bitcoin new week.

I said we were going to handle the case in London.

My colleague asked if I were going to ask them to leave their contact information.

MODAL VERBS

Most modal verbs don’t transform because, in theory, they’re already in the ‘past form’. Though two do transform – ‘can’ and ‘have to’. Also note after modal verbs, we always use the infinitive without ‘to’. And don’t forget to transform the ‘be’ verb to its past form in present tenses.


DIRECT SPEECH

DIRECT SPEECH

 

Can

“Internet communities can have a lot of influence.”

“It’s a zombie company that can’t make any real money.”

Can you please leave your computer on?”

Could

They reported (that) Internet communities could have a lot of influence.

They admitted it was a zombie company that couldn’t make any real money.

IT asked us if we could please leave our computers turned on.

Have to

“I have to make a call.”

The group has to change its strategy.

“Do we have to submit the report soon?”

Had to

She said she had to make a phone call.

They said the group had to change its strategy.

He asked me if we had to submit the report soon.

Modals

We could create a new patent.”

We would love to come to the event.”

“The interns should work on this issue.”

“The UN representatives may be at the conference.”

“We might have a surprise audit next week.”

You must install the software to protect your devices”

“We ought to finish this by tomorrow.”

Should we ask first?”

Modals (no change)

I/she/he said I/she/he could create a new patent.

They said theywould love to come to the event.

The supervisor said the interns should work on this issue.

We were told that the UN representatives may be at the conference.

The director said we might have a surprise audit next week.

The director said we must install the software to protect our devices. (*could also be transformed to “had to”)

They said we ought to finish this by tomorrow.

She asked if we should ask first.

Now you’ve got the know-how to be a master of international information exchange (or just really good at office gossip). Wasn’t that exciting and not tedious at all? Well, I hope in any case, you’ll see the value in this guide and come back to it for reference as needed.  In the meantime, if you have additional questions or need assistance, please get in touch!