Direct and Indirect Speech – Knowing the Difference

This tricky English topic could give you trouble if you don't understand these innate differences.

One of the biggest challenges that the average English learner can face is not being able to interpret or understand the difference between direct and indirect speech. In order to really understand how they are formed and used, we first need to define these two terms and what they are supposed to represent.

Let us start first with what ‘direct speech’ is. Direct speech simply repeats or quotes the exact words that were spoken word for word without any hesitation. If you need to use direct speech in writing, in English, we use quotation marks (““) to highlight the words that the person spoke so as to not to give false representation. Direct speech in writing always goes within the two quotation marks so that there is no confusion as to who said what words. For direct speech, you can highlight what was said in the present but also what was said in the past. I have listed a few examples below that could be used both in the spoken and written contexts.

Examples:

  1. Jimmy says that, “We will need to come home early tonight for dinner.”
  2. Katherine shouted, “There’s a bee in my hat! Help!”
  3. My mom asked me earlier, “What time will you be home?" I said to her, “I don’t know yet, mom.”

It is important to keep in mind that direct speech can refer to both the past and the present which is a key difference from indirect speech as I will go on to discuss further.

Indirect speech, also known as reported speech, often discusses what was said or what was written about in the past and may not always be 100% in its accuracy so that is important to keep in mind. The words are often used in the past tense and there are different verbs used for indirect speech such as ‘say, tell, ask, hear, see.’ The word ‘that’ also comes in handy in sentences that use indirect speech and commas are not used as frequently as they are when it comes to direct speech.

Examples:

1. Janet said, “I spoke to him earlier. “ (Direct)

  • Janet said that she had spoken to him earlier. (Indirect)

2. The principal stated to the class, “He will not accept bullying in this school.” (Direct)

  • The principal stated to the class that he will not accept bullying in this school. (Indirect)

3. They told him that he would never receive a work promotion. (Indirect)

4. We told the children yesterday that it was time for them to go to bed. (Indirect)

As you can see from a few of these examples, the word ‘that’ is a key part of differentiating indirect speech from direct speech. It is also common to see indirect speech or reported speech not using commas as well. If you weren’t actually there with the person who said those words or had heard it from someone else afterwards, you need to use indirect speech because it wouldn’t be right to quote someone when you weren’t actually there to hear them.

You don’t always have to use ‘that’ to make it indirect speech. However, you never really want to use commas in sentences with reported speech. Lastly, as mentioned before, indirect speech always refers to the past tense whereas direct speech can reflect the present as well since you can quote people’s words in real time as you’re there listening to them speak. That distinction is key to understanding one of the differences between direct and indirect speech because there are a few of them to be aware of.

There are certain verbs for the act of speaking in English that are going to come up in direct and especially indirect speech. You’ll want to use the verb ‘to say’ in a sentence where there is no indirect object. You can use the verb ‘to tell’ when you know who it is the person is talking to in the sentence and can verify who they are. When it comes to communicating with other people, the verbs ‘to speak’ and ‘to talk’ come in handy for both direct and indirect speech.

It’s important to note that the future tense cannot be used for direct speech since you would be basing those quotes or words on your own speculation rather than what you are hearing the person say or would have heard what the person said. Direct speech is for present and past tense while indirect speech is used for the past tense only.

While the tenses are either present or past tense when it comes to the direct speech or indirect speech verbs of ‘talk, speak, say, tell’, etc., it is important to keep in mind that the quoted parts of the sentence referencing the speaker can refer to the past, present, and the future. The direct and indirect speech verbs maintain their present or past tense format while the rest of the verbs can be past, present, or future tense depending upon the context. I have listed a few examples below to make this bit of information more easily digestible.

Examples:

  1. Alice said, “She will go to the farmers market tomorrow to get some vegetables.” (Direct)
  2. I heard Alice say that she will go to the farmers market tomorrow to get some vegetables. (Indirect)
  3. Mr. Murphy says to the other teachers, “I don’t understand why my students didn’t pay attention in class yesterday. (Direct)
  4. The math teacher told us how Mr. Murphy didn’t understand why his students weren’t paying attention in class yesterday. (Indirect)

Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to indirect or reported speech are that modal verbs such as could, might, must, should, etc. do not change their actual form at all.

Examples:

  1. They explained to us that this tax bill could have negative consequences for the middle class.
  2. We were told earlier that there might be consequences if we don’t finish all of the assigned homework by the end of the semester.

While there are many small differences between direct and indirect speech in English, the main thing to take away from this blog post is that how to phrase and quote speech is really important and must involve practice and effort. Being able to write stories or quote dialogue correctly are integral skills in the English language that can only come from being able to understand and use both direct and indirect speech. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know and best of luck in using this article to further your English language goals!

Benjamin Weinberg
Benjamin Weinberg

Ben helps students from around the world to improve their English language skills. Ben enjoys traveling around the world, developing his writing abilities, and reading good books.  Enjoy my articles here or at www.benjweinberg.com for more! 

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