Reported speech and communication impacts of mastery

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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 a 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 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 in present 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”, “next day” or “following 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.

  To be continued

GOKE ILESANMI (FIIM, FIMC, CMC), CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Professional Public Speaker, Career Mgt Coach and Certified Mgt Consultant. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant.

Tel: 08056030424; 08055068773; 08187499425

Email: gokeiles2010@gmail.com

Website: www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng


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