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Tenses in Direct and Indirect Speech

Direct speech consists of the exact words a person says or thinks.

  • She said to Tom, ‘James is coming too.’
  • ‘I’ll be there,’ he promised.
  • ‘Who is that man?’ she wondered.
  • ‘Are you singing with us?’ she asked me.

Indirect speech reports what someone has said or thought.

  • She said to Tom that James was coming too.
  • He promised that he would be there.
  • She wondered who the man was.
  • She asked me if I was singing with them.

In indirect speech, the tense of the verb depends on both the tense of the verb in the main clause (the verb of saying, thinking, promising, etc) and the tense of the verb in the words actually used by the person doing the speaking, thinking, promising, etc.

If the verb of saying, thinking, etc is in the present tense, the tense of the verb in indirect speech is the same as in direct speech.

  • ‘James is coming too.’ — She says that James is coming too.
  • ‘I can play the piano.’ — He claims he can play the piano.
  • ‘I will come to your wedding.’ — I promise I will come to your wedding.
  • ‘I have finished reading the paper.’ — He says that he has finished reading the paper.

If the verb of saying, thinking, etc is in the past tense, the verb in the indirect speech clause must normally be in a past tense even if the actual words spoken (the ‘direct speech’) were in the present tense or the future tense.

A verb in the present tense in direct speech becomes a past tense in indirect speech; a future tense becomes a future in the past; and a present perfect tense becomes a past perfect tense:

  • ‘James is coming too.’ — She said that James was coming too.
  • ‘She is down at the village hall.’ — Your husband told me you were down at the village hall.
  • ‘Am I going mad?’ — He wondered if he was going mad.
  • ‘I can play the piano.’ — He claimed he could play the piano.
  • ‘I will come to your wedding.’ — I promised would come to your wedding.
  • ‘I have finished reading the paper.’ — He said that he had finished reading the paper.

There is no change of tense in reported speech when the verb of saying, etc is in the present perfect tense:

  • ‘Am coming with you?’ — John has asked whether he is coming with us.
  • ‘I will come to your wedding.’ — I have promised will come to your wedding.

Notice that when a question in direct speech is reported in indirect speech, there is no question mark at the end of the sentence, just a full stop:

  • ‘Why are you crying?’ — She asked him why he was crying.
  • ‘Are you coming?’ — He asked if I was coming.

Notice also that when итЛ-words such as who, what, whose, etc occur in a question in direct speech, there is a change of word order in indirect speech, with the verb moving to the end of the clause:

  • ‘Who is that man? — She is asking who that man is.
  • ‘What is that noise?’ — He asked what the noise was.
  • ‘Whose umbrella is that? — I wondered whose umbrella it was.
  • ‘Where is the money?’ — He asked where the money was.

With which there may be a change in word order but there need not be:

  • ‘Which car is yours?’ She asked which car was mine.

A present tense usually changes to a past tense in reported speech when the verb of speaking, etc is in the past tense, but this is not always the case.

If what was said was true at the original time of speaking and is still true at the time when it is being reported, the tense of the verb in the reported speech may change to a past tense but it may stay in the present tense:

  • ‘John teaches English in Singapore.’ — She told me that John taught English in Singapore. OR She told me that John teaches English in Singapore.
  • ‘The universe is 20 million years old.’ He said the universe was 20 million years old. OR He said the universe is 20 million years old.

When the verb of saying, etc is in the past tense, a verb in the simple past tense in direct speech either remains a simple past tense, or else becomes a past perfect tense:

  • ‘I saw him steal that bike.’ My mother swore she saw him steal that bike. OR My mother swore she had seen him steal that bike.
  • ‘She kissed me.’ He told me that she kissed him. OR He told me that she had kissed him.

Modal auxiliaries in the past tense, however, remain in the same form:

  • ‘I might do it.’ She said she might do it.
  • ‘I could meet you next week.’ He said he could meet us next week.
  • ‘You must come and see us soon.’ She said we must come and see her soon.

A verb in the past perfect tense in direct speech remains as a past perfect tense:

  • ‘I had never been to a Christian funeral before.’ She told them that she had never been to a Christian funeral before.
  • ‘I had never seen such a beautiful dress in my life.’ I said to the woman in the shop that I had never seen anything so beautiful.

The rules regarding tenses in indirect speech could sometimes lead to ambiguous sentences. Whenever that would be the case, it is necessary, when there is a choice of tense, to choose a tense that makes what you are saying unambiguous.

For example, when the verb of speaking, etc is in the past tense, a verb in the present tense in direct speech usually changes to a past tense in reported speech, as described in paragraph 1:

  • ‘I hate you,’ she said. She said she hated him.

However, as described in paragraph 2, a verb in the simple past tense in direct speech may also be a simple past tense in indirect speech:

  • ‘She kissed me,’ he said. He told me she kissed him.

When what is being described is an action, there is usually no problem, but when feelings are being described, there might be uncertainty about whether or not the feeling had stopped by the time of speaking:

  • ‘I hate you,’ she said. She said that she hated him. (Rule above)
  • ‘I hated you,’ she said. She said that she hated him. (Rule above)

Wherever there would be ambiguity of this sort, a past tense in direct speech must become a past perfect tense in order to show that the situation being described had finished when the words of the direct speech were first spoken:

  • ‘I hated you,’ she said. She said that she had hated him.


  • ‘I love my job,’ he told her. He told her that he loved his job.
  • ‘I loved my job,’ he told her. He told her that he had loved his job.

Even when the verb of saying, etc is in the past tense, a present-tense verb in the subjunctive mood remains in the present tense in reported speech:

  • It has been suggested that the coffee machine be replaced.
  • He insisted that she leave immediately.
  • begged that she be allowed to stay.

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