An ELT Glossary : Direct Speech / Reported Speech / Backshift

Look at the following two extracts from an article on the BBC website discussing sexist commentary during the Rio Olympics :

A) When US gymnast Simone Biles gave a storming performance on the uneven bars, an NBC commentator complimented her by saying: "I think she might even go higher than the men."

B) Another commentator caused outrage on social media when he implied a female athlete was reliant on her husband

Extract A is an example of direct speech. The exact words of the speaker are quoted, in inverted commas. 

Extract B, on the other hand, uses reported speech (also called indirect speech). We don't know from the report exactly what words were used -  the writer simply summarises their content.

Reported speech often uses backshift - a grammatical process occurring whereby the verb in the summary of what the person said is brought into agreement with the reporting verb - so in this example was is used rather than is. If backshift is used, then present tense verb forms (whether present simple, present continuous, present perfect or first form modals) will change to past tense (becoming past simple, past continuous, past perfect and second form modals respectively). Past verb forms change to the past perfect.  Some examples :

Example 1  

Direct speech:  " I'll look for it as soon as I get home", she said. 
Indirect speech with backshift : She said she would look for  it as soon as she got home.

Example 2  

Direct speech:  He told reporters, " We are looking into the matter and have already resolved several issues"
Indirect speech with backshift : He told reporters that they were looking into the matter and had already resolved several matters.

Example 3

Direct speech: "John left yesterday," she said
Indirect speech with backshift :  She said that John had left the day before.

Notice that, as the examples show, other features may may also change in reported speech - for example, pronouns In examples 1 and 2. I becomes she while we becomes they - for the obvious reason that the speaker is being seen from the perspective of the person reporting the words. But time changes between the moment the words were spoken and the moment when they are reported may also mean that changes in time adverbials are also necessary. Yesterday in example 4 may no longer be yesterday at the time of reporting, and so has to change to the day before.

Backshift is not grammatically obligatory but is a style option. It is frequently used in written English, but often ignored in informal spoken English, where I might well say :

"I saw Anne this morning and she said that she'll do it as soon as she gets home."

This presumes that the time of Anne's arrival is still future. If I thought she was already at home, and that the action of "looking for it" was already past, then I would use past tense verb forms to indicate this: 
"I saw Anne this morning and she said that she'd look for it as soon as she got home. I'll send her a message on Facebook to see if she's found it."

Because reported speech is only a summary of the content of the person's speech, it very often bears no or little resemblance to the words used at all. For example, I could report what was said in example 1 as : She agreed to look for it as soon as she arrived, while in extract B what the commentator had actually said, as the cameras focused on the athlete's husband in the crowd, was: "This is the man responsible."

Direct speech is generally found in written texts - particularly press articles, fiction (novels and short stories) and academic texts which cite the words written by other researchers/experts in the field. Some examples :

  • From a press article: Lam described the current secondary school programme as a “chicken coop without a roof” 
  • From a novel : "I only know what Zaphod's told me," she whispered. (Douglas Adams, 1979 A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Pan Books)
  • From an academic text Ellis explains that “the teacher is able to draw on his experience of communicating with low-level proficiency learners to adjust the demands of the task and to scaffold the interaction so that a successful outcome is reached” (p. 182).

Press articles and academic texts in particular will often also use reported speech. Some more examples :

  • From the same press article cited above : (Lam) said her government would soon unveil its plans. 
  • From an academic text : Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that metaphor is all persuasive in language... (McCarthy, 1990, Vocabulary, OUP)
However, reported speech will be used to a much greater degree in all spoken genres. 

And for some teaching suggestions...

Scrivener, J. Teaching English Grammar, Macmillan