Reported Speech: Varieties, a Critique, and a New Name




Reported, or indirect speech is taught with as few words or structures as “said”, “told someone”, “asked someone/if” and perhaps a couple more of imperative forms. Our most exhaustive source listed around three score of such verbs. This presentation started with an analysis of four hundred verbs, related to one another by definition; and classified them not only according to structure, but into thesaurus-type categories. The idea of which verbs deal with speech is not uniform, which is one of the facts brought out both through the lists and a critique of the standard terms used for this topic. An all-encompassing new terminology is proposed.


This page does not teach reported speech per se, but does look at some of the ways that it is presented, and analyzes these. Furthermore, the very terminology “reported speech” is examined from what I hope is a completely new point of view. We reflect on the levels of precision provided through the reporting term, and the accuracy of the very idea of “reported” or “indirect speech”. Finally, we propose that it should be called something else, in that it unconsciously follows the German principle of considering any statement attributed to someone else, as having been of dubious truth.

Students reading this are advised to be aware of what is demanded by their teachers, or on the tests that they would take. Variety may be the spice of life, but is not always well-countenanced, especially in badly-designed multiple-choice tests, especially if these latter are corrected by a software program.

A few days ago, I posted an article considering reported speech as it relates to conditional sentences. While thinking about the topic, other ideas came to me. A list was made up of as many reporting verbs as possible before exhaustion set in.

The reader is asked to accept the following on faith, as it cannot be demonstrated: A list of 356 verbs, previously classified into thesaurus-type entries, was put into a spread-sheet; suggestions from a text, which were added in red, brought this number to 409. After ordering the list alphabetically, and eliminating redundancies, ony 345 terms were listed, including 17 new ones. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary was used to help bring the number back up to just over 400, skewing the results towards the letter “A”. These were entered in blue. They were then reclassified (not yet shown here) as appropiate for direct, irdirect, or both types of discourse; as suitable for affirmative, interrogative, imperative, or exclamatory utterances; by verb families, and by families of similar meanings.


Language Teaching: Drill and Bore

Students, you`ve been drilled, you’ve been bored. So you end up saying, “You said me …”, because you’ve heard Lionel Richie’s song, without knowing the underlying meaning: “Say ‘You’, say ‘me’”.

You tell me that “Say me” exists, when I say it doesn’t. Ah, but how sweet is the drill afforded by the repetitious pop song! You weren’t bored then, but neither did you learn correct grammar!

Teachers, are you not bored with the constant exercise of reported speech (if that is what the course requires) of: “[S]he said (that) …”? (e.g. in O`Neill, Kingsbury, et. al, 1978, 142; Thomson and Martinet, 1980, 258-62 [most of their examples are with “said”]).

Perhaps we move along a bit, and also construct reported speech along the lines of: “[S]he told someone (that) …”.

If the course allows creativity, we might actually construct sentences of an entirely different nature:

Student: “I heard `say me` on the radio.”

A more original form of the reported speech: The student protested that [s]he had heard ‘say me” on the radio.

If, as based on personal experience, we can take this to be a dialogue between student and instructor, the teacher may very well take the former’s comment to be a protest, a complaint, a suggestion of pedagogical error:

Jean suggested that the teacher was mistaken, because [s]he had heard “say me” in a song.

Some teachers would encourage their students to take the type of creative liberty with reported speech found in the example above. The student, in that case, should be very happy, but then there exists the pitfall that the construction chosen may not have been as easy as the standard one with “said”. As a consequence, errors may arise.

While not wanting to suppress creativity, we prefer not to go too far. In most cases, it would not be necessary to adjust oneself to the following parameters, but there are cases when reported speech should be of such a nature, that were it necessary to reconstruct the original words used, they would manifest themselves with 100 % accuracy.

Various reporting verbs were tested in this light. Only the neutral “say”, in our opinion, works satisfactorily from every point of view, while other words which maintain the correct idea either are restricted in their placement in a sentence, or may incorrectly judge the speaker’s attitude or frame of mind.

This writer’s focus on correctly transmitting the idea might have been the result of a parlour past-time, perhaps known as the telephone game, in which a good number of players are required. It definitely came from something a teacher of ours tried in primary school. Unfortunately, she partially invalidated the outcome by telling us what would happen, thus allowing any mischievous pupils to deliberately jeopardize the results.

It was something like this: The teacher whispered something to the student in the front of the first row to her left. Each pupil whispered the statement to the one behind him, or, once the end of the row had received the message, it was passed on to the person to the left. Forty whisperings later (2 grades in one classroom), the final person would communicate the message [s]he received – most unlike the original – to the entire class. Here we see how reported speech can imitate rumour, when it goes around enough times, especially with a reporting structure which does not allow for an exact reconstruction of the original statement.

Going back to the present, our chain of thought then continued with standard transformations of “reported” speech:

Reporter: The president of the country has cancelled all appointments today, as it is expected that new leadership will be sworn in within 24 hours.

It was reported that the president had cancelled all appointments that day, as it was expected that new leadership would be sworn in within 24 hours of that breaking news item.

In the preceding, some creativity was employed to prevent the use of “reported” and “of that (news) report”.

Our private joke is that reported speech is apt for the news reporter. By the way, how many textbooks have teachers seen which expect students to engage in a rôle play as one of these characters? Do the majority of the students agree, or do some, as maybe the teacher, find this to be a rather artificial exercise?

From our reporter, we move on to something more dynamic. Unfortunately, the results are rather clumsy.

Drill sergeant: “When I say ‘jump’, ask me, ‘How high?’”

The drill sergeant barked at the recruits that they should ask him how high they should jump when he gave the command.

The preceding requires some major rewording, as it deals with both an order and an embedded question, while the original idea that the sergeant would be “barking” required a rather clumsy construction. Our sentence would be better with a verbatim reporting verb, and woe betide if the person quoted were to take exception to that choice of wording:

The drill sergeant barked, “When I say ‘jump’, ask me, ‘How high?’ ”

Unfortunately, many of the metaphorical words which suggest themselves present exactly the same problem.

Curiosities of Direct Speech

Before proceeding, it may well be worth observing that direct speech has its own peculiarities. We are so used to:

Carroll said, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.”
or to its possible variants:

“Humpty Dumpty,” Carroll said, “sat on a wall.” “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,” he said;
that we may fail to notice that most reporting verbs cannot simply be put at the beginning of a sentence.

A sentence such as:

The manager accepted, “Yes, I guess that you do deserve a raise”
sounds strange in comparison to:

“Yes, I guess that you do deserve a raise,” accepted the manager.
Many of the words which cannot conveniently be placed at the beginning of a sentence because of the dissonance, can, however, in the presence of an adverb or adverbial construction:

Impossible: Zarathustra spoke, “Nietzche will report my words”;

while this is permitted:

Thus spoke Zarathustra, “Nietzche will report my words”; or:
Zarathustra spoke thusly, “Nietzche will misquote me”.
The final position for the reporting part of the sentence does not work.

Let us look at another example, clumsier, but not impossible:

The agent was reproached with the words, “You are part of a team.”

The agent was reproached with the reminder that [s]he was part of a team.

Although the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary may not classify words such as “reproach” as valid for direct speech, this paper will consider that they are.

“Intend” is one such example, one of the 17 additions to this essayist’s original list, is an example which does not permit easy manipulation. We hardly believe that it should be understood, in the context of the other 16 words submitted, that the original quoted statement to have been something like one of the following:

I intend that you become my successor. / I intend for you to become my successor. / It is my intention that you be my successor.
When one puts other examples to the test, it is seen that no manipulation gives a satisfactory result. .

Extensions of the problem of clumsy sentences have suggested themselves to this writer with words such as “growl”, “grunt”, “purr”, “bleat”, “mew”, “squeak”, “squeal”, “snort”, “trumpet”, “blare”, etc. It is seen that these words, which come from animals or instruments, are applied metaphorically to humans. No difficulty, of course, exists, when these are used in direct speech. Most of the verbs listed further below suffer from the same defect.

We must also warn the reader that the Cobuild text gives a broader view of what the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1995) defines as speech verbs, admittedly limited to those usable in direct quotations. In this article, we follow the ideas of the former text.

Humorous Reported Speech – Tom Swiftisms

Something akin to “Tom Swiftisms” suggest themselves, in the following, provided as a lighter interlude to our main ideas:

The commander (commandingly) commanded … ,

The director (directly) directed … ,

The instructor (instructively) instructed …. ,

The soothsayer (soothingly) said … ,

This last sentence, according to the Wikipedia article “Tom Swifties” derives from the author of the series of books on the eponymous hero feeling it necessary to add to the word “said”. That said, let this writer clarify:

  • He read most of the series in the 6th or 7th grade;
  • His first-year university English professor professed a disdain for the construction;
  • No Swiftism (the professor’s word) is remembered, but the one’s found on the web were probably worse than the original creations – hence, we suggest a couple:

“You wouldn’t dare try to shoot me in cold blood,” the mobster said icily.

“I should advise you to rigously apply Fowler’s rules from his Modern English Usage,” the schoolmaster/schoolmistress said bookishly.

“I bleat, you bleat, we all bleat for awful eats,” chanted the child sheepishly in a bad imitation of the coldly cried words, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice-cream.”

Sentence Types and Reported Speech

The paragraph just previous to the section of Swiftisms serves as a lead-in to this section, in that it is the beginning of what could be a very large list of reporting verbs. Many of these will not lend themselves to accuracy in recreating the original words of a speaker, but are useful for fictional narrative and poetry.

We remember that there are four kinds of sentences: declarative (affirmative or negative), interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory. The first of these is most associated with the word “said”, the second with “asked if/whether”, the third with “requested”, “demanded”, and others, and the last with “exclaimed”. This list is not exhaustive, and we can subdivide the categories:

Under the declarative type, we might put as possible reporting verbs all those animal and mechanical sounds mentioned two paragraphs above. We can add formal words used in the courtroom, by the police, by academics, by institutions, etc.: declare, plead, state, aver, ascertain, promise, vow, etc.

We can talk about repetition: repeat, parrot, echo, … There may be a similar element in: insist, harp, nag …. Perhaps, closely related: recite, tell (as to “tell one’s beads”). Pray”, in the non-pleading sense is a category apart.

Musical styles: sing, chant, intone, hum

Loud styles (also valid for categories below): shout, bruit, cry, yell, scream; and the opposite: whisper, murmur

Style of complaint: Murmur, grumble, groan, complain, talk back, answer back

Say for the first time to a third party (good and bad senses): reveal, make known, announce, divulge, report, snitch, squeal, tattle

Imprudent speech: Idle: gossip, rumour

Imprudent speech: Vulgarity: swear, curse

Imprudent speech: Violation of religion: Swear, curse, blaspheme

Speech with anger: (in addition to terms for loudness and vulgarity) spit, huff, and expectorate.

Others: interrupt, cut in, put in one’s 2 cents worth, interject, blurt, etc.

Opposite of interrogative: answer, reply, respond.

Implied reported speech: think, consider, deem

We’ll stop there, and go on to the interrogative forms, which are more limited:

Ask, question, query, inquire, enquire, demand (in interrogative sense). “Wonder”, for rhetorical questions.

The most common imperative forms:

Order, command, instruct, brief, tell (someone to do something)

An interesting category is that of the exclamatory sentences, where the reporting verb is often closely associated with a word or phrase.

Pain: Ouch! – cry out

Disgust: (expletives) – swear, curse

Profanity: (expletives) – blaspheme, curse, swear

True or mock compliment: Nice try! – compliment; say ironically or sarcastically

Disappointment: Oh, no!: cry (use with “disheartened”)

Some of the single words, such as “Oh!”, might have various functions.

The above is to show that simple texts do not go into the full range of possibilities of what is available. Neither, of course, have we.

A Critique of the Terminology of Our Topic

A citation from another work, incorporated into an essay is the equivalent of direct speech. Should such a quote in any form be given indirectly, it could use almost any of the non-animal, non-instrumental, or non-speech-defect verbs given in this article. This is something that none of this writer’s books have dealt with. To be all-inclusive then, the term could more appropriately be, “reported citation”. Especially apt for the journalistic profession, nonetheless, even this falls short of what we think it should be called. Would that the people in that line of work followed our ideas of allowing the original words to be reconstructed, and that the spreading of the news not end up in some kind of garbled rewording as in our anecdote about the teacher who whispered some text into a pupil’s ear.

When “Speech”, “Say” and “Read” Merge

Further introductory remarks for our criticims are that the three words of this subsection are not limited to vocalized words, but can be extended even beyond that which is written. Taking them one-by-one:

Speech is found in “figures of speech”, which may be written. Of course, everything that we are now capable of putting down into readable words is derived from spoken elements, about 1000 terms in our European languages. We can prepare the text of a speech, give the actual discourse, and then, in whole or in part, put it again into reported speech – or plagiarize it. The derived verbal form can be used figuratively, as in “The geological record speaks volumes to us about changes in the earth’s crust.”

In the example of the last sentence, we could have used “say”. It is, in essence, about information imparted in some form. More commonly, especially to a person with reading difficulties, we might answer a question as to what a sign says.

Both of the preceding examples can have “read” as a verb substituted for the previously suggested one. We read the geological record, or a sign reads, “No loitering”.

In order to avoid the creation of further subsections, we include here other concepts. Consider the needle on a phonograph which “reads” the squiggles of a record, and actually renders them into sound – spoken or sung if applicable. Remember the magnetic heads of a tape recorder, in the floppy or hard-drive of a computer. Optical drives read laser-generated pits in CD or DVD-ROMs.

In older technologies, or perhaps those sometimes used in emergecies, a telegraph operator can tell us what a message in Morse code says. Navegotors, especially in the navy, may have to understand what message is being said by flashing lights, or flag signalling. Hence, anything which can be interpreted into some form of information, whether frivolous or serious, is being said to us, perhaps after being read to us.

Should it be asked, “What does Bach’s Brandenburg Conciertos say to us about his music?”, we are more than likely not asking someone to look at the musical scores, but to listen to how they sound, and give intelligent comment.

Based on the preceding, reporting forms, whether for direct or indirect communication of information, need not, as in most reference works, refer to spoken words only.

But for the moment, assuming the traditional interpretation, we look unkindly upon the term “indirect speech”, because it it is redolent of someone too cowardly to “come right out and say it”, or that something is being implied, as in a veiled threat:

Authority figure: “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Implication: The person spoken to was threatened with bodily or moral harm.

Commoner: “I was indirectly threatened by the official who suggested that I not do it.”

Note that in the preceding, we both quote exact words, and use “indirect speech”.

We remain with a Latin term, oratio obliqua, but both “indirect” and “oblique” can suggest deceit.

As was the title of some famous books, with 3 different Russian authors using the same title, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Vladimir Lenin we ask ourselves What is to be done? What name can we propose?

My suggestion is “subjunctive citation”.

We give two reasons for this. The first one looks at reality, and at how reporting it can distort the truth.

The German words “indirekte Rede” translate as “indirect speech”, but the treatment in that language requires something which is almost in disuse in modern English: the subjunctive.

The theory is that the person who narrates what was originally said by another, takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the statement.

Here is an example that must resonate with many persons:

“Read my lips, ‘No new taxes’.”
The German, freely transliterated, Der Präsident sagte, man solle seine Lippe bemerken, es gäbe keine weiteren Steuern.

This sentence has the beauty of being almost faithfully translated (using the German text): The president said that one should read his lips, that there would be no new taxes.

So, the first part, the person who quotes does not take any part in claiming the truth of the original sentence – hence, only the person originally speaking can be held to his or her word.

Moreover – and this is why reporters should be more intelligent in their write-ups or broadcasts – as long as the speaker did not use the dipthong “O” sound as in the American Midwest, lip-reading for “no” and “new” are identical. While such a deceit may not have been practiced in the situation from which we are borrowing, the statement might just have been, “New, new taxes!” The message of the lips then, could truthfully prevail over that of the remaining speech organs.

The reader may also note that in “Read my lips”, we are asked to determine what the lips say, without listening to the actual words. It is thus possible to tie in the argument from the section on the merging of the words “speech”, “say”, and “read”, in the context of whether what we read truly concords with what was spoken. This is often the excercise of attorneys, who try to advise clients that the apparent wording of a law in one’s favour might just work the other way around.

The second reason for our proposed name is this: should we now use the word “suggest” instead of the tedious “said”, we do get a subjunctive form in English:

The president suggested that his lips be read, that there would be ( = were to be) no new taxes.

Let us look at another example from German, easily recognizable in English.

Der Student sagt, “Ich komme am Montag”.

Reported: Der Student sagte, dass er am Montag käme.

English: The student suggested that would be coming on Monday.

The problem with the word “suggest”, and its corresponding use of the subjunctive, is that it cannot easily be applied to oneself.

Professor zum Student: “Schreib deutlich!”

Reported: Der Professor verlangte, dass der Student deutlich schreibe.

English: The professor demanded that the student write clearly. (Br. Eng.: “should write”).

While the use of words such as “suggest”, “hint”, “intimate”, etc. would seem to be unlikely substitutes for “said”, we justify ourselves after considering interrogative sentences.

The subjunctive form can be clearly seen in the interrogative of both of the languages under discussion:

Lady to Gentlemen: “Haben Sie Feuer?” [Do you have a light?]

Reported Speech: Die Frau fragte dem Herrn, ob er Feuer hätte.

English: The lady asked the gentleman if he had a light.

One might object, that the “had” is simply the restating of the present in the past, according to the rules of reported speech. Let us offer our take on this:

  • There is an implied 2nd conditional, hence, subjunctive involved.

The lady, by her question, implied that if the gentleman had a light, she would be happy to have her cigarette lit by him.

As a form of reported speech, the above is surely quite wordy, and pure English generally goes for keeping things short.

  • The Anglo-Saxon word “say” was “secgan” in Old English, a cognate of the German “sagen”. We offer the opinion, that while a substantial number of reporting words are followed by the subjunctive form in English, “say” has lost it, in a process of simplification. This does not mean that the implication of the subjunctive mood needs to be dismissed. We retain that in our offering, “subjunctive citation”, and warn that this is not to be viewed as “subjective speech”, which is what happens when one of the more creative reporting words is used.

Subjective Reported Speech

At this point, we should, in line with the above, call it “Subjective Subjunctive Citation”, but this is a terrible mouthful. Granted, it is an option, but the very word “subjective” may reflect upon the validity of the term “reported speech”, as much as it does upon any non-objective citation.

We do emphasize the “subjective” part here.

When we gave the example of the sergeant barking, we may have been most correct, according to the standard manner of such an NCO giving orders, but the word does have a subjective element, which might arouse the wrath of the person quoted, were [s]he to be apprized of the situation. And perhaps, could it not have been more of a growl, a grunt, a boom, or simply a command or an order? Redundancy here is to emphasize the different words which can be used.

On this basis, we recommend the use of such subjective terms in fictitious reporting, or in poetry. Many learners of a second language are interested in a practical vocabulary and grammar. While the life of an EFL or ESL teacher could be quickened by not having to teach the same platitudes over and over, especially where American English is being taught, and while H. W. Fowler considers a certain style of wordiness to be “elegant variation”, in science and mathematics, elegance is expressed in short, precise formulae. Some would say the same for the use of language – here Fowler refers, for example, to “Love of the Long Word”.

It may be noted that, in conformity with our extended definition of reported speech, an expert in Morse code, upon hearing the delivery of some missive, might report, in “subjective citation”, “The telegraph clacked out the message that the stagecoach would be travelling through the area with five distinguished visitors and a strongbox full of gold coins.” However, in this sentence, the verb “clacked” does not have the subjectivity that is found as when we say that the sergeant barked.

Our text, the reader may have noticed, does not quite follow Fowler-type rules. However, we have waxed more philosophical than empirical, and as this is no academic journal, we permit ourselves certain liberties.


Very few reporting verbs allow for a precise reconstruction of a quoted sentence. Even the number of reporting verbs for a citation is limited, although more possibilities exist when using adverbs or adverbial constructions. Sentences were then tested in indirect speech, where the principal idea was posited, that the terminology in use is imprecise in communicating the function it supposes. If direct, it goes beyond the spoken word, but encompasses anything written, or even sign language. If not quoted, it should be considered subjunctive, as the person rewording the text is neither able to vouch for the truth of the original statement, nor would [s]he be willing to be quoted as having said so.

That said, is “subjunctive citation” or something similar ever to be adopted?

November 6, 11 & 16, 2017.

© 2017, Paul Karl Moeller

Subject to improvements.


In addition to sources listed in our article “Reported Speech and Conditional Sentences” , this article references, or used:

Hornby, A.S., Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 5th ed., 1995.

Hornby, A.S., Gatenby, E.V., et. al. The Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, 2nd Ed., Oxford, 1963.

Robert O’Neill, Roy Kingsbury, Tony Yeadon, Edwin T. Cornelius, Jr., American Kernel Intermediate, Longmans, 1978.

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