150. Verbs with Indirect Speech



Verbs next to indirect speech often indicate the kind of message that it is communicating


One of the characteristics of indirect speech is that it rarely forms a sentence by itself – it tends to have some words alongside it that are not indirect speech (see 127. When to Use Indirect Speech). Typically (though not inevitably), one of these other words will be a verb, as in this example (indirect speech underlined):

(a) Smith (2014, p. 42) ARGUES that sustained sporting success is impossible without money.

What is interesting about argues here is that it does more than just show there to be a statement within a statement: it also suggests that that statement is an opinion rather than a fact (see 107. The Language of Opinions).

Suggesting an extra meaning of one kind or another seems, indeed, to be a common role of verbs accompanying indirect speech. In this post I hope to show the truth of that, and also to set out some of the more common contexts where it might occur, as well as the variety of extra meanings that can be communicated.



When a verb is used alongside indirect speech, it tends to indicate some kind of “saying”, such as argues in (a), or of “thinking”, such as KNOW or BELIEVE. If the indirect speech is reporting another writer’s idea, verbs of this kind are sometimes called “citation” verbs (see 76. Tenses of Citation Verbs). An extra meaning beyond that of saying or thinking seems to be present quite often in indirect statement verbs and nearly always in verbs accompanying indirect questions and “commands”.

1. Verbs accompanying indirect statements

Verbs of this kind are typically followed by that (either explicit or “understood” – see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”), though alternatives are usually available and sometimes necessary (see 127. When to Use Indirect Speech). The most basic verbs, indicating not much more than “saying”, include MENTION, SAY and STATE.

Of the others, many additionally suggest that the indirect statement is either a fact or an opinion. Examples of fact verbs are KNOW, NOTE, POINT OUT and INDICATE; examples of “opinion” verbs are ARGUE and THINK. For more examples, see 107. The Language of Opinions and 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts.

Another common additional meaning communicated by indirect statement verbs, either alongside or instead of the fact/opinion one, is information of a more precise kind about the role, status or function of the indirect speech. DEFINE, for example, leaves no doubt that it is a definition. Other examples are AGREE, COMPLAIN, CRITICISE, DESCRIBE, EXPLAIN, GUARANTEE, NOTE, NOTICE (see 132. Tricky Word Contrasts 4, #4), PROMISE (see 147. Types of Future Meaning), QUOTE, REPORT, SUGGEST, SUMMARISE, THREATEN and WARN. These include some – CRITICISE, DEFINE and QUOTE, for example – that cannot combine with that as argues does in (a) (see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation Writing).

Slightly different are verbs like EMPHASISE and HINT which focus more on the way a reported statement was originally presented than on its nature (strongly and obliquely respectively).

Another interesting subgroup of indirect statement verbs is involved in the reporting of sentence links (which are defined in this blog in the post 18. Relations between Sentences). Consider the following words of an imaginary writer Jones (2015):

(a) It is commonly observed that price rises reduce sales. The reason is that many consumers are willing or able to pay no more than a specific amount for a commodity.

The meaning link between these two sentences, indicated by the underlined words, is one of “cause” or “reason”. Another writer wanting to repeat all of (a) would probably not need to reference the information in the first sentence because it is common knowledge, but perhaps would need to reference the reason given in the second sentence (making it into either an exact quotation or a paraphrase constructed as advised in the Guinlist post 80. How to Paraphrase). The simplest way to link in the author’s name is with the verb SAY: Jones (2015) says that this is because … . A much more elegant way, however, is with a reporting verb whose very meaning includes the idea of “cause”, like this: Jones (2015) attributes this to … .

There are a number of other reporting verbs that similarly indicate a possible sentence link. ILLUSTRATE can report exemplification (suggesting for example), CONCLUDE can report inferencing (as shown by therefore), IDENTIFY, LIST, NAME and SPECIFY can report an identification (of the kind considered in the posts 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists and 117. Saying More Precisely What is Meant),  DISTINGUISH can report a difference (suggesting on the other hand), CONCEDE a “concession” (suggesting may – see 51. Making Concessions with “May”) and RELATE … TO a similarity (similarly).

Indirect statements about the future are a further subgroup with a variety of characteristic introductory verbs. This is hardly surprising given the variety of roles that future statements can have (see 147. Types of Future Meaning). Consider the following future-referring direct statement:

(b) The new law will reduce unemployment.

If this is uttered by the government responsible for the law in question, its role could be interpreted as a promise, whereas coming from economic observers it would more likely be seen as a prediction. In reporting it by means of indirect speech, either of these two different views can be made explicit through the choice of introductory verb: The government promises in the first case and Observers predict in the second. Alternatively, the report could be made more neutral through the use of a simple says.

Other verbs that can clarify types of future meaning include ANTICIPATE, ENVISAGE, EXPECT, FORECAST, HOPE, PLEDGE, THREATEN and VOW (for more see the relevant post). Note that the accompanying indirect statement does not have to be a report: beginning I predict that would rule out reporting but still involve indirect speech (see 127. When to Use Indirect Speech).


2. Verbs accompanying indirect questions

The extra meaning that indirect question verbs usually carry alongside that of “saying” or “thinking” is “asking” or “explaining”. The first is illustrated by the thinking verb WONDER, the second by SHOW. When accompanying questions, such verbs cannot be followed by that, but need question words like whether, why or where instead. For more details, see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing.


3. Verbs accompanying indirect “commands”

Most verbs of this kind seem to be of saying rather than thinking (non-commanding WANT [SB] TO DO [STH] may be a rare exception – if it is a form of indirect “speech” at all). An additional meaning beyond that of “saying” seems always to be present.

The choice of a suitable verb before an indirect “command” presents something of a challenge. The probable reason is that there is no single verb that can be used in most cases, like SAY with indirect statements, nor even a very limited group of verbs covering the majority of additional meanings, like ASK and EXPLAIN with indirect questions. Verbs that mean “command” are very often unsuitable because indirect “commands” are frequently not commands at all: their general meaning is wider, and includes commands as only one subcategory. These multiple possible non-command meanings mirror the numerous non-command meanings of verbs in the imperative form (see 128. Imperative Verbs in Formal Writing).

My own preferred term for indirect-command verbs is “urging”, since the kind of indirect speech that they introduce is usually pushing someone to behave in a particular way. Verbs of this kind that carry the additional meaning of “command” include COMMAND, DIRECT, FORBID, INSTRUCT, ORDER, REMIND, TELL and WANT. Another kind of urging is “requesting”, as expressed by such verbs as APPEAL TO, ASK, BEG, BESEECH, CALL ON, ENTREAT, INVITE and REQUEST. A third group is verbs of “persuading”, such as ADVISE, CONVINCE, COUNSEL, ENCOURAGE, LEAD, PERSUADE, PRESS, PUSH and URGE.

A grammatical feature that all of these verbs share is the need for the person being pushed to be the grammatical object (unless the verb is passive), and for the following verb to have to, as in this example:

(c) Caesar ordered his troops to attack.

A complication for learners of English is that some urging verbs cannot be used as above. PROHIBIT may have an urged person as its object but, like STOP and PREVENT, needs the following verb to have from + -ing instead of to (see 65. Verbs that Mean “Must” or “Can”). PROPOSE, RECOMMEND and SUGGEST cannot even have the urged person as their object, preferring either to make it the subject of a verb after that (… proposed that they …) or to drop it altogether and use just an -ing verb. DEMAND is similar, but uses a to verb instead an -ing one. The exceptional nature of all these requirements makes grammar errors very likely (see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar).

The variety of meanings and grammatical requirements of behaviour-urging verbs means that learners of English need to memorise quite a few. To assist this, here are some direct “commands” that could be put into indirect form after a behaviour-urging verb. Which verb is best each time (answers below)?

1. (A teacher to young children) “Don’t be afraid to ask for help”.

2. (A TV announcer) “If you would like to take part, call this number”.

3. (A child to its mother) “Please, please buy this for me”.

4. (A police officer to a motorist) “Don’t forget to wear your seatbelt”.

5. (A travel agent) “Take a taxi to save time”.

6. (A doctor) “If you feel unwell, contact the hospital immediately”.

7. (A teacher to a young child) “Go and wash your hands immediately”.

8. (A lecturer to students) “Check this out in the textbook”.


Answers: Most of the sentences allow more than one choice of reporting verb. My suggestions are 1-ENCOURAGE;  2-INVITE;  3-BEG;  4-REMIND;  5-RECOMMEND/ADVISE;  6-URGE;  7-ORDER;  8-REFER … TO.


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