Grammar curiosities 1: reported speech

The first post in our series on grammar nonsense got quite a lot of discussion going and it seemed that on the whole there was quite a lot of sympathy with the view that many of the ‘rules’ about reported speech that are commonly taught are what we technically term guff! There were some dissenting voices and some interesting questions were raised, and so I thought I would follow it up with some responses and also a look at some reported speech curiosities – things that don’t often get taught, but that are incredibly common (or else that simply got me thinking)!

We’re not saying don’t teach it – just teach it differently!

So first, a response to the view that we DO need to teach reported speech because it works differently in some languages. The answer to this is that I agree we should give students the opportunity to learn ‘reported speech’, but I just think that the rules we might teach would be different. As stated at the end of the last post, we could just teach ‘reported speech’ as a part of teaching tense meanings when teaching particular tenses (so we might have examples of reported speech when teaching the past simple, the past continuous, the past perfect, will, would, etc.). It might also come up when we’re teaching the skills of telling stories, and we could pick up on errors at other times in any lesson too – if (and it’s a big if) they are genuine errors in the context that they’re being used in.

Correctness and level

To begin with an example, in a Facebook discussion that emerged following last week’s post, we were asked about the sentence He definitely said he was a vegetarian. We were asked what we would tell students about the use of was? Is He definitely said he is a vegetarian wrong? If not, and a student asks why the different tense here, what would you say?

I would say that we use the past tense here because the person is reporting their understanding of the situation at a particular time (when the original announcement was said), and that this feature is especially common when it appears the situation is different now (he isn’t actually a vegetarian after all!). In this context, using ‘is’ could be said to be ‘wrong’ or confusing to a listener if there’s now proof that he isn’t actually vegetarian. However, as is so often the case, this is all incredibly dependent on context and the great problem with reported speech teaching is that we almost never have this context. Instead, we’re just given mathematical transformations of single sentences. The second issue is to do with the level at which we should make distinctions like these. To me, this particular issue is an Advanced or Proficiency level thing. And even then, we should really only be correcting students’ use when we have the full context and that context can only properly come from the students trying to report things in genuine ways for themselves. The good news, though, is that there are, in fact, lots of opportunities for this, such as every time they retell what they understood from a listening, as we very often ask them do, or simply just during the general conversation and banter between students in a class. I’m still not convinced it needs a special lesson.

He was like ‘That’s so stupid’

For many, the use of like to introduce reported speech is a bugbear, something to be ranted about and, if possible, stopped! Quite apart from the fact that this is like King Canute trying to stop the tide from coming in, I actually think disliking the use of like here is kind of misunderstanding the general nature of reported speech and what is actually being reported when like is used. As we already established, when we report speech, we do not usually give an exact report of what was originally said. So if you wanted to report my last blog post, you could say “Andrew said the rules of reported speech were stupid!” I think that would be a reasonable summary, but it’s not the exact words I used. Or you could say “Andrew gave some examples of how we teach reported speech rules and he was like ‘That’s so stupid’!” I would argue that use of like here emphasizes the the direct speech is a summary of my feelings – not the actual words. It’s basically what I was thinking, but is not the same as the actual words I used. It’s similar, it’s like what I said, but it’s not the same! Very often when people use like, they may even be reporting a thought or feeling that they’re summarizing with a thing that we might typically say when we have such thoughts or feelings – “and I was like ‘Stop right there! I think they’ve got your point’ but he still went on for another half an hour”!

She says and I go

One other way that we introduce reported speech – and that often gets sidelined – is to use say (as opposed to said) and go and went. This again follows on from the idea of reported speech being something that forms a central part of telling stories or anecdotes. I use these words in the widest possible sense here, by the way, so your ‘story’ might be about how you missed the bus this morning. When reporting things that happened, it is also not unusual for people to slip into the present tense. The reason given for this is that it adds immediacy or drama. I don’t know if that is actually a choice that people consciously make, but whatever: it happens. I think in the case of second language users, this is often done because it’s cognitively easier – essentially no rules are being employed apart from our most familiar base forms. Should this be a thing to correct, then? Should we really be encouraging the use of said or told me instead of say and go?

And finally … reporting verbs

Recently, I had a debate with an editor about which words could be included in a grammar section on reporting verbs. We were told that the following were decidedly not reporting verbs: decide, intend, avoid, miss, and carry on.

In one way, I agree: these are not part of the normal list of verbs included in the reporting verbs section of a coursebook. However, when you start thinking about it, trying to establish a clear difference between what is a reporting verb and what isn’t seems pretty arbitrary. How do we know, for example, that she’s decided not to come to the wedding after all? Couldn’t the sentence be a report of a whole conversation we’ve had with her? How is refused  – as in She refused to come the wedding – a reporting verb while decide is somehow not? You could argue that avoid on its own isn’t reporting, but what about He avoided the question? This brings us back to the point that reporting is an all-pervasive thing. The grammar element of reporting verbs, the patterns that follows them, is no different to understanding that there are different patterns that follow ‘non-reporting’ verbs. I don’t see that creating a distinction about any of these things really helps students. As for the teaching of verb patterns themselves, well … grrrr! That could be a bit of grammar nonsense for another day.

A note of thanks and approval

Thanks to Bruno Leys for sending me back to look at Martin Parrot’s book English Grammar for English Language Teachers. Though I am sure he was not the first, and we won’t be the last, his chapter on reported speech is very sensible and it turns out says something very similar to us. Great minds ….:-)!

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  • Great minds, indeed! ;-) Still wondering how to solve the fact that this topic was going to be part of my IATEFL talk. I know you haven’t stolen my thunder and I’m sure I’ll find a way to work things out. I might be inclined to mention these posts in the talk.

    • Hugh Dellar

      Given the orthodoxy that we’re up against, Bruno, I’d have thought that the more of us there are saying similar kinds of things, the better.

    • Andrew Walkley

      I think you might be overestimating the number of people who read our blog and go to IATEFL! Wouldn’t worry about it.

    • AndrewWalkley

      I think you might be overestimating how many people read our posts and actually go to IATEFL. But even if that is not the case, we have only said what others have said before, apparently and the more people saying such things, the better.

      • You’re probably right, Andrew, so you can expect me to include it, anyway. Among other things, naturally …

    • Lexicallab

      Given the orthodoxy that we’re up against, Bruno, I’d have thought that the more of us there are saying similar kinds of things, the better.

      • That strikes a chord, Hugh. There is quite a bunch of hardline grammarians around still. Some of them don’t even seem to hear that we’re not saying “Don’t teach grammar”, but merely “Teach grammar differently.” I read some similar views on grammar in Danny Norrington-Davies’ book “Teaching Grammar. From Rules to Reasons” (Pavillion, 2016). So maybe, 24 years after Michael Lewis’s The Lexical Approach, the idea is finally catching on.

        • Lexicallab

          Let’s hope so. I haven’t gotten round to reading Danny’s book yet. Recommended?

          • I’m only half way through, but I do think it’s an interesting read. And it has a reference to (Dellar and Walkley, 2016) on page 23 “It also lends weight to the idea that grammar and vocabulary are both taught more effectively in combination.”

          • Lexicallab

            Always nice to be quoted. We’ve reached that stage, I guess! I used to work with Danny at IH and he’s a very nice man. I shall look out for this one.

  • Ken Paterson

    On the subject of great minds, it’s worth having a look at Carter and McCarthy in Cambridge Grammar of English (pages 820-824) and Biber et al in Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (pages 1118-1121). Amongst other things, they cover the way we mix direct and indirect reports in narratives; the use of the past progressive in speech representation:
    ‘Meg was telling me about her new dog. He’s called Socrates, apparently.’
    and words like ‘Oh’ and ‘Okay’ that may or may not have been used in the original direct speech, but may be adopted by the reporter to act a bit like speech marks:
    ‘So she said, okay, but we’d better make sure we pay our share of the bill.’
    (Biber at al call these ‘utterance launchers’.)
    ‘Spoken grammar’ has its own rules, I guess, often subtler than the ones we’re sometimes obliged to teach, but sometimes easier, too, and certainly liberating for students.

    • And I particularly like this chapter in your book Spoken Grammar, Ken!

      • Andrew Walkley


    • Andrew Walkley

      Hi there Ken, lovely to hear from you. Hope you are well. I like the X was telling me’ and it featured in the first edition of Outcomes, but sadly booted out at the second edition – apparently by popular demand!! The utterance launchers are also interesting I didn’t think about before.

      • Ken Paterson

        Bruno, Andrew (and anyone else who’s reading): interesting and relevant article by Carter and McCarthy in Feb 2017’s edition of Applied Linguistics: ‘Spoken Grammar: where are we and where are we going?’
        Good luck with the talk, Bruno, and best wishes for Lexical Lab, Andrew!

  • Nandita Srivastava

    Nice, it’s really different !

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