Mastering reported speech for effective report writing

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By Goke Ilesanmi

Reported speech is the opposite of direct speech. Direct speech refers to the original utterance of the first speaker and it is marked off by inverted commas in written discourse. It may be present or past in tense, depending on what the speaker is talking about.
For example, if the speaker is talking about a present event, he uses present tense, and if it is a past event, he uses past tense. So direct speech does not specifically refer to present-tense utterance. Thus, the structure of direct speech may be: He says/said, “1 am happy” or He says/said, “I was around yesterday.”
Reported speech
This is otherwise known as Indirect Speech. It is opposed to the direct speech in which the original utterance of the first speaker is marked off by inverted commas. This is the ‘diluted’ form of the utterance of the original speaker. Reported speech does not necessarily mean past-tense version of direct speech, as it is possible to have present- as well as past-tense reported speech.
What determines the tense of the reported speech is the tense of the reporting or introducing verb. So if the reporting verb is present in tense, the tense of the original words of the first speaker will not change, e.g. He says, “I am happy” (direct speech) will change to “He says (that) he is happy” in reported speech. Also, He says, “I was around” (direct speech) changes to “He says (that) he was around” in reported speech.

If, however, the reporting verb is in past tense, there will be backshifting. That is, the
tense of the direct speech will shift one step backwards into the past in reported speech. In other words, if the direct speech is simple present, it changes to simple past; and if it is simple past or present perfect, it becomes past perfect. Thus: He said, “I am happy”
(direct speech) will change to “He said (that) he was happy”, while He said, “I was
around ” (direct speech) becomes “He said (that) he had been around” in reported speech.
Also, He said, “1 have written my note” (direct speech) becomes “He said (that) he had
written his note” in reported speech.
Apart from tense, in changing direct speech to reported speech, a lot of transformation
manifests. For example, the personal pronouns change form. “I” may become “she” or
“he” depending on the sex of the first speaker. “We” changes to “they”; “you” becomes
“he”, “she” or “it” in the singular form, depending on the gender referred to by the first speaker.
However, in the plural form, “you” becomes “they”. Also “this” becomes “that”; “these” changes to “those”; “today” becomes “that day”; “yesterday” becomes “previous day” or “day before”; “tomorrow” changes to “day after” or “next day”. Also, “next week” changes to “following week” or “week after”.
However, some of these changes are not always compulsory, especially adverbs of place and time, as well as determiners like “this” and “these”. This flexibility is especially applicable in real-life situation when the place of the original speech (reflected by “here”) has not changed, or when the time {represented by “tomorrow”, “next week”, etc.} still holds as the first speaker had in mind.

Also if the item modified by “this” is still within range in space, or the ones modified by “these”, then there is no need changing to “that” or “those” respectively. Finally, the relative pronoun or sub-ordinating conjunction “that” is an item of optional
transformation in syntax when used in reported speech, especially with the verb “say”,
and that is why it is usually put in brackets in the dictionary and grammar books. But lack of knowledge of grammar makes some people even add it as a compulsory constituent in reported speech, all in the name of trying to ensure expressions are grammatical.
Changing direct questions into reported ones
In changing a direct question to a reported or statement form, the interrogative tone will disappear. And for the interrogative tone to give way, there must be inversion of the auxiliary verb (e.g. is, are, will, etc.) and the succeeding noun or pronoun, especially in Yes/No and WH-questions. By analytical extension, “if” or “whether” is inserted after the reporting verb in reported Yes/No questions. For example, “Is he happy?” (direct question) becomes either “He asks if/whether he is happy” or “He asked if/whether he was happy”, depending on the tense of the reporting verb.
Apart from “ask”, other verbs employed in the course of reporting direct questions are “enquire”, “wonder”, “want to know”, “demand to know”, etc. The verb “wonder” is used in rhetorical questions, that is, questions that expect no answer, e.g. “When am I going to get out of this problem?” In this WH-question, the speaker is not asking anybody, but only wonders about his condition. Changing direct questions to statements is the problem of most Nigerian speakers. One often hears even highly-educated people reporting questions such as “He usually asks me that am I a banker.” The structure of this statement is faulty, especially that it still maintains some question tone occasioned by the use of “am” before “I”. The correct version is something like “He usually asks me if/whether I am banker.”
Structural exceptions
However, in some grammatical situations, especially in WH-questions, if the direct questions have interrogative pronouns like “who?”, “what?”, “which?”, “where?”, etc. as the subject, the word order will not change in the reported form. Therefore, “Who is there?” (direct question) becomes “He asks who is there” or “He asked who was there” in the statement form.

Statements and questions combined
Here we are going to consider a situation in which we have a statement followed by a question and vice versa.
(a)A statement followed by a question:
“I am satisfied. Do you need more?” (direct speech) becomes “He said (that) he was satisfied and asked if/whether his listener/friend needed more” in the reported case.
(b) A question followed by a statement:
“Do you need more? I am satisfied” (direct speech) becomes “He asked if/whether his listener/friend needed more and added that he himself was satisfied”.
Breaking the tense-sequence rule
(a)Universal permanent truth:
The rule of sequence of tenses stipulating tense agreement between the main clause(represented by “He says/said”, etc.) and the subordinate clause is acceptably broken in (academic) English when we are talking about universal and permanent truth. So, He said, “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west”( direct speech) becomes “He said (that) the sun rises in the east and sets in the west” in the reported form.
Naturally, the verbs should have been in the past form. But because the idea expressed here is universal and permanent, the present tense is preserved.
(b) Non-universal permanent truth:
As said earlier, expressions of universal truth are the only grammatical situation in which the rule of sequence of tenses is permissibly broken in academic English.
However, extreme observance of this rule may lead to a dilemma in some situations because one may be psychologically torn between trying to maintain a permanent idea, and abiding by the rule of grammar. For example, let us assume that a friend of yours has come to introduce his sister to you by saying “Meet Bola my younger sister”, if you want to tell another friend about this, would you say “Gbenga said (that) Bola was his younger sister”? If you prefer to utter it this way, you are just trying to observe the rule of sequence of tenses, and this is purely academic English. But the implication of your utterance is that you are saying the kinship tie between Gbenga and Bola no longer exists.

However, if you say “Gbenga said (that) Bola is his younger sister”, it amounts to breaking the rule of tense-sequence, but the information portrays their kinship tie as being intact. This situation represents that of a non-universal permanent truth. That is, while it is globally known that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, it is not globally known that Gbenga and Bola are brother and sister, though the truth is permanent. So this is the difference between a universal permanent truth and a non-universal permanent truth.
Note: some flexibility is, however, allowed in permanent truths that are not universal, like the kinship tie between Gbenga and Bola. That is, the rule of sequence of tenses can be broken if one is more interested in the present fact than in the past statement or observance of academic grammar. This is especially so in spoken English, or written discourse not based on English-language examination.

Reported speech and news-reporting
In news-reporting, for example, some journalism scholars say that present tense should take precedence over past, if information will still hold even after an incident has been reported. The point made to buttress this assertion is that the purpose of news stories is to achieve immediacy and this is why newspaper headlines are written in present tense.
One of such scholars, a professor of journalism and author of Grammar for Journalists, a book that has two professors of English, S. Leonard Rubinstein and Robert G. Weaver as contributors, says in the book: “A major problem between present and past tenses results when the unthinking journalist puts too much stress on past tense at the expense of logic. Clearly, when you are quoting someone who spoke at a meeting, the speech or attribution tag (usually said) is in the past tense. After all, the speaker said it – past tense, once and done. But what if the speaker was talking about an on-going project?”

He adds: “‘I don’t like the way the bypass is coming,’ Williams said. ‘It looks as if it will ruin our environment.’ Would you change the direct quotation to the past tense? Of course, not. You know Williams is speaking of his position on the bypass; his position is unlikely to change unless the bypass changes. The problem arises when the journalist paraphrases a speaker.… By changing the tense, you have changed the meaning…. Using past tense where logic calls for present tense could confuse the reader.”

Final note
In changing from direct to reported speech, the rule of tense-sequence needs to be observed. However, this rule is permissibly broken in universal truths even when it is academic English. Even in habitual actions or non-universal permanent truths, flexibility is allowed if one is more interested in the present fact than in the past statement, especially when it is not written discourse concerned with English language examination.
PS: For those making inquiries about our Public Speaking, Business Presentation and Professional Writing Skills programme, please visit the website indicated on this page for details. Till we meet on Monday.
GOKE ILESANMI, Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Certified Public Speaker/MC, Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker and Career Management Coach. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant.
Tel: 08055068773; 08187499425
Email: gokeiles2010@gmail.com
Website: www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng

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