127. When to Use Indirect Speech

Thanking

English uses indirect speech more than direct speech for reporting other people’s words but has other uses for it too

PROBLEMS POSED BY INDIRECT SPEECH

A good command of indirect speech requires knowing not just how to construct it, but also when to use it in place of direct speech. This question is not a problem for all learners of English, but it can give especial difficulty to speakers of languages with a much stronger preference for direct speech.

Unfortunately, the clarity of indirect speech explanation in many descriptions of English grammar is less than complete. Although the construction of indirect speech is usually handled quite well, its use tends to be mentioned in only the briefest and vaguest terms – often, for example, simply as “reporting” (indeed, some descriptions prefer the term “reported” to “indirect”). It is this problem that is behind the writing of the present post.

Some advice on indirect speech use is also offered elsewhere in this blog (see 22. Multiple Speakers in a Text,  57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing,  80. How to Paraphrase,  107. The Language of Opinions and 150. Verbs Used with Indirect Speech). Some of it is repeated below, but numerous new points will also be found.

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THE FORMS OF INDIRECT SPEECH

Before considering the uses of indirect speech, its physical characteristics need to be clear. As these are well described in most mainstream grammars, they need only be surveyed briefly here.

1. Indirect speech normally occupies only part of a sentence, alongside special speech-indicating words, like this:

(a) Sim (2015, p.14) states that globalization is unstoppable.

(b) Columbus promised to reward his crew richly.

The underlined words here are the indirect speech, while the others introduce it. Direct speech can also have this characteristic, but not without quotation marks (“…”). The normal grammatical category of indirect speech within a longer sentence is “noun phrase” – a group of words in a sentence position normally associated with nouns. Acting in this way is part of the reason why indirect speech is worded as it is (see below). One important exception to the part-sentence norm is indirect questions in headings (see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing and 105. Questions with a “to” Verb).

2. Indirect speech mostly has different wording from that needed to say the same thing with direct speech.

3. Indirect speech lacks quotation marks (“…”). Direct speech can also be used without this punctuation, but not when it is put into a longer sentence like (a) above. If the underlined words in (a) had quotation marks around them, they would be understandable as the exact words of Sim rather than a paraphrase or summary.

4. Indirect speech uses pronouns, tenses and adverbs that show the point of view of its author. This requirement becomes important when the author is not the originator of the message of the speech, as in (b), where Columbus is the originator. The word his there shows the author’s point of view; Columbus would have spoken of my crew rather than his crew.

In addition to these central characteristics, there are features of indirect speech that vary according to whether it is a statement, question or command.

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Specific Statement Features

1. Tendency of that to be used or understood just before the statement, normally in partnership with a reporting verb like states (see 150. Verbs Used with Indirect Speech) or related noun like statement (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that“). However, that is not compulsory. An alternative with many reporting verbs is an earlier as. Moreover, some verbs, such as PROMISE in (b), allow, instead of that, the changing of the following verb into the to or -ing form (to reward above – see 147. Types of Future Meaning).

A few verbs, such as CRITICISE, do not allow that at all, and reporting verbs can be avoided altogether by means of according to before the speaker’s name. For more on both of these points, see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation Writing.

2. No comma between that and the reported statement (see 50. Right and Wrong Comma Places).

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Specific Question Features

1. An introductory expression of saying or thinking that suggests asking or explaining, e.g. the question, the issue, investigate, clarify, wonder or determine.

2. Different word order from direct questions (no verb before the subject of the question).

3. An initial question word (or equivalent noun) without that

4. A full stop instead of a question mark at the end.

For details, see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing.

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Specific Command Features

1. An introductory expression of saying or thinking that suggests commanding, inviting or advising, e.g. ADVISE, ASK, COMMAND, COUNSEL, INSTRUCT, INVITE, ORDER, REQUEST, TELL or URGE. It is usually followed by the “commanded” person (e.g. told the audience …), but some verbs, such as SUGGEST and GIVE AN ORDER, require something different (see 150. Verbs Used with Indirect Speech).

2. A verb with to for the commanded action. Some verbs, e.g. ORDER and REQUEST, allow an “action” noun like departure instead, without mention of the commanded person (see 65. Verbs that Mean “Must” or “Can” and 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). A few other verbs, e.g. SUGGEST and RECOMMEND, need a following -ing verb.

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USES OF INDIRECT SPEECH

The most familiar use of indirect speech, which some grammars even present as the only one, is that of “reporting”. The specific problem with focussing on reporting is that it is also achievable with direct speech, and it is not the only use of indirect speech. Consider these:

(c) Jones (2016, p.32) maintains that “sport is essential for word peace”.

(d) Could you indicate what your name is?

(e) I think that safety precautions are sometimes excessive.

Sentence (c) illustrates reporting with direct instead of indirect speech. The quotation marks are the clue to the directness, the wording before them (maintains that) the sign of reporting. The use of that before direct speech seems to be a marker of academic reporting (see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation-Writing); it is not possible with direct speech that is a spoken report or not a report at all (e.g. dialogue in novels).

The underlined indirect speech in (d) and (e), on the other hand, has no reporting function: reporting needs original words underlying the reported ones, but there are no such words here – instead the indirect speech is itself the original wording. With these complications recognised, identifying the uses of indirect speech comes down to distinguishing the reporting use from its direct speech alternative, and elaborating the other indirect speech uses.

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The Use of Indirect Reporting

Indirect reporting is actually the default way of reporting in English: it is done automatically when none of the reasons for direct reporting apply. Therefore, to understand the use of indirect reporting, it is more helpful to think first about uses of direct reporting. These seem to include the following:

 

1. PRESERVATION OF VALUE

Sometimes the speech that we wish to report has some noteworthy feature – cleverness, conciseness, beauty, fame, originality – that we do not wish to change or suggest is our own.

2. FEAR OF MISINTERPRETATION

Original messages are not always easy to understand: they may be ambiguous or conceptually difficult or just poorly written. In these cases, quoting the exact original words allows readers to make their own judgement about what is being said.

3. STRONG DISAGREEMENT WITH THE REPORTED MESSAGE

Writers seem better able to distance themselves from what they are reporting by quoting it rather than putting it into their own words.

4. LITERARY EFFECT

Some reporting is done in a more literary than academic way in order to entertain as well as inform, rather as some TV documentaries use drama instead of factual narration. In this context, direct speech can be more colourful and attention-catching than the indirect equivalent. Professional writing, however, must generally avoid this kind of reporting because it is unlikely to reflect the exact words that were actually said, and hence probably cannot meet the paramount need for factual accuracy (see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing).

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Indirect reporting is usually required if none of these reasons apply. However, it has some particular advantages of its own that are worth highlighting.

1. SUMMARISING AND TRANSLATING

These are by definition ways of changing words, and hence cannot logically be done with direct speech (except for dramatic effect). Summarising is particularly necessary in academic literature reviews, where brevity is paramount.

2. AVOIDANCE OF OFFENCE

There are various kinds of wording, such as swearing and racist language, that writers might want to change in order to avoid offence (though they might also keep them in order to shame the author!).

3. AVOIDANCE OF AMBIGUITY.

This spoken English use of indirect speech may be illustrated with the following sentence:

(f) The Principal said, “I am performing well”.

When the words are spoken, so that punctuation is absent, there can be uncertainty whether I is the named speaker (The Principal) or the sentence speaker. English pronunciation can actually clarify this – by means of a pause after said – but sometimes this may be considered insufficient. Switching to indirect speech (… said he was performing well) can remove such problems.

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Non-Reporting Uses of Indirect Speech

Outside of reporting, indirect speech is not the default and needs a special reason to be used. The main reasons seem to be the following:

1. POLITE INFORMATION-SEEKING

Direct questions in search of information can sound a little impolite in English. Sentence (d) above illustrates the more polite use of an indirect question. It seems to be only questions that become more polite by being made indirect. See 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing for more details.

2. FORMAL TOPIC INTRODUCTION.

Topic introduction in general is achievable with questions. Indirect questions are a formal way of doing it, and are hence to be preferred in formal writing. More is in the relevant post (see also 105. Questions with a “to” Verb).

3. SPEECH CHARACTERISATION.

Sentence (e) above illustrates this use. The verb before the indirect speech, think, ensures that it is understood as an opinion – useful when no other opinion-indicating clue is present (see 107. The Language of Opinions). Speakers can characterise their words in various other ways, usually by means of the verb they choose (see 150. Verbs Used with Indirect Speech).

I understand that … shows a statement to be somebody else’s, in other words reported. I know/realise that … suggests it may not be obvious. I agree that equates it with somebody else’s opinion (see 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts), while I would like to say can signal gratitude. Other subjects than I are possible too.

Questions too can be characterised by being made indirect. Here is a question characterised in this way as “mystifying”.

(g) It is mystifying (A mystifying question is) why nobody spoke up.

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