Reported verbs are like second hand verbs; speakers use them to say what someone else has already said.
Quite often, we use quoted speech to repeat what someone has said. However, quotations require the second speaker to say exactly what the first speaker said before them. In written English, it’s not usually an issue, but in spoken English quoted speech can cause confusion at times. Another option for telling a third party what a first party has said is using reported speech and thus reported verbs. Reported speech communicates to a third party what a first party said but without using the exact wording. Teaching reported speech is likely a topic for your advanced English students, but if you have high intermediates you could introduce the idea then as well. Here’s how to go about it.
How to Teach Reported Verbs in 5 Easy Steps
Review Quoted Speech with Your Students
Your students will have to understand what quoted speech is before they can learn how to correctly use reported speech. Quoted speech is a direct quotation of what someone has said. In writing the words, when a second person repeats them, are surrounded by quotation marks and follow certain punctuation patterns.
When the speaker tag is at the beginning of the sentence, a comma follows it and the quoted sentence(s) can end with a period, question mark, or exclamation mark.
- He said, “I am coming to the party.”
When the speaker tag is at the end of a sentence, the quoted sentence(s) must end with either a question mark, an exclamation mark, or a comma, and the speaker tag is followed with a period (even if the original speaker asked a question).
- “I am coming to the party,” he said.
- “Are you coming to the party?” she asked.
Teaching the Basics of Reported Speech
When an English speaker changes quoted speech to reported speech, the original sentence becomes a noun clause (dependent clause) in the new sentence. When statements become reported speech, the noun clause can optionally begin with the word “that”. For questions that become reported speech, the noun clause begins with if or whether. The three most common verbs used with reported speech are say, tell, and ask. Each follows its own pattern when used in reported speech. Generally, though, changing quoted speech to reported speech involves changes in pronoun use and verb tense.
Pronouns should be changed to keep the meaning of the sentence logical.
Present verbs in the quoted speech become past verbs in the reported speech.
- “I am happy.”
- She said (that) she was happy.
Present progressive verbs in the quoted speech become past progressive verbs in the reported speech.
- “They are leaving in the morning.”
- He said (that) they were leaving in the morning.
Simple past, present perfect, and past perfect verbs in the quoted speech become past perfect verbs in the reported speech.
- “Jake took that class last semester.”
- He said Jake had taken that class last semester.
- “I have visited Maui.”
- She said that she had visited Maui.
Simple future verbs using “will” in quoted speech use “would” instead in the reported speech.
- “It will rain tomorrow.”
- The forecaster said it would rain tomorrow.
Modal verbs in quoted speech experience these changes in reported speech: can becomes could, may/might or could, will/would,must or have to/had to, shall/would or should. Might, should, and ought to remain the same in reported speech.
- “A police officer can stop you for running a red light.”
- He said (that) a police officer could stop you for running a red light.
Imperative statements in quoted speech become infinitive verbs in reported speech.
- “Go home!”
- He said to go home.
Teach Your Students to Use Specific Reporting Verbs
When changing a direct quotation to reported speech using say, change the pronoun as necessary in the reported speech and make a present verb past tense. It is optional whether or not to start the reported phrase with “that”.
- “I am your father.” (quoted speech)
- He said (that) he was your father. (reported speech)
If the verb in the quoted speech is already in the past tense, it remains in the past tense.
- “I did my homework last night.” (quoted speech)
- He said (that) he did his homework last night.
Generally, say is used as a reported verb for something that was said at an earlier time. It is sometimes possible to use say as a reported verb directly after the first person has spoken if more than two people are having a conversation and one person does not hear or mishears what the first speaker says. In this case, do not change the tense of the verb.
- Speaker 1: “I am going to ask him out.”
- Speaker 2: “What?”
- Speaker 3: “She said she is going to ask him out.”
Tell follows a slightly different patterns when used in reported speech. Since tell is a verb which takes a direct object, reported speech using tell must include a reference to the original hearer of the statement. That reference should come directly after the verb tell in the sentence. The person reporting the speech does not have to be the person who heard the original speaker.
- “I am planning on selling my car.”
- He told me (that) he was planning on selling his car.
- “She will not pass her driver’s test.”
- Michael told his brother (that) their sister would not pass her driver’s test.
When ask is used in reported speech, the quoted speech was a question, and including a direct object is optional for reported speech using ask. Yes/No questions in reported speech are phrased as if or whether clauses.
- “Are you going to the mall later?”
- He asked if you were going to the mall later.
- He asked you whether you were going to the mall later.
Information questions in reported speech follow the same patterns as statements except that they use the question word as the subordinating conjunction in the noun clause rather than that, and the subordinating conjunction is not optional.
- “Where did you get that?”
- My mother asked (me) where I got that.
- “What’s the soup of the day?”
- The customer asked the server what the soup of the day was.
Alert Your Students to Other Reporting Verbs and Their Patterns
English is full of reporting verbs, and memorizing the sentence pattern for each one can be overwhelming for even the best ESL students. Teaching them in categories, groups of verbs which follow the same pattern, is a better option for most students. Here are the most common reporting verb patterns with some verbs that follow each of them. (Some reporting verbs do fit into more than one category.)
Reporting verb/object/infinitive: advise, encourage, warn
- He warned us to study for the test.
Reporting verb/infinitive: agree, decide, promise
- He decided to quit his job.
Reporting verb/(that)/verb: say, admit, promise
- She promised (that) she would call me after the interview.
Reporting verb/gerund: deny, recommend, suggest
- He denied cheating on the test.
Reporting verb/object/preposition/gerund: accuse, blame, congratulate
- She congratulated her daughter on graduating college.
Reporting verb/preposition/gerund: apologize, insist
- They insisted on coming with me.
Follow Up with a Lesson on Advanced Reported Speech
These instructions are true when the reporting verb (say, tell, ask, etc.) are in the past tense. You and your students will find that when the reporting verb is in a present or future tense, the verbs in the reported speech follow different patterns. Once your students have mastered standard reported speech, move on to more advanced reported speech patterns.
Learning reported speech in English is important, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
If you walk your students through these steps, they will learn to recognize and use reported speech in their day-to-day English use. At what level do you usually teach reported speech?