Grammar nonsense 1: reported speech

Is there anything that is more bizarrely and unnecessarily taught in ELT than reported speech? There have been many times when my heart has sunk as I’ve faced ‘the reported speech unit’ – both as a teacher and as a writer. I’ve often wanted to disappear into a dark corner and weep! And there have been more than a few occasions when my students have clearly felt pretty much the same after they’ve ‘discovered’ the lengthy list of rules, done endless transformations and tried and failed to fulfill my insane requirement that they repeat exactly what their partners had just told them two minutes ago following all rules previously looked at!

The main thing that annoys me about reported speech is that the use of tenses, pronouns, time phrases and all the other guff isn’t actually different to the way tenses, pronouns, and time phrases are used at any other time. As Michael Swan says in Practical English Usage, ‘it is not necessary to learn complicated rules about indirect speech in English’ (1995). Unfortunately, Swan then goes on to give six pages of rules! Why? Because like most of us (and I’m not entirely innocent myself), he’s trapped by exam grammar and traditions which see reported speech as a series of transformations where we literally transcribe what was actually said, word for word into our report – and in constructing these new sentences, we move one tense back from the originals and make other appropriate changes to pronouns and time words – always with the exact direct speech in mind. That may be what students have to do in an exam such as First Certificate and, consequently, is what we ask them to do all the time in our lessons. However, it is definitely not how things happen in real life.

In real conversations, it’s rare to report all of the actual words we heard – and when we do, we tend to make a point of it:

I’m sorry, but you said – and I quote - “I will never do it again” – so why the hell am I picking up your shoes from the middle of the living room floor again!

You said ‘I’ve not heard anything about that’ – those were the exact words you used!

And, of course, there’s no back shift of tenses, etc. Because of the need to be specific about the words people actually said, we use the exact words we heard! Not that this – or the phrases used to draw attention to this use – are ever taught, probably because they are suggestive of arguments, which as we all know simply do not exist in the nice, happy, shiny world of ELT!

When it comes to normal indirect speech, we usually just report the generality of what was said. We don’t really transform things that we heard, but rather we tell a kind of story. That may be a story which includes a bit about what was said among other actions, or it may be ‘the story’ of a whole conversation, but in either case, what we do is use tenses (and pronouns and time phrases) in the same way as we would when we tell any other kind story that happened in the past. Yet when I have written examples for practice of narrative tenses such as these:

She said she was feeling unwell so she sat down and we got her a glass of water.

He told me he hadn’t spoken to anyone about it before.

They said they would call back later.

I have sometimes been told (by editors) that these were examples of reported speech and somehow not normal examples of past continuous (interrupted/unfinished action at the time of her speaking and me hearing it), past perfect (before the he spoke and I heard it), would (future in the past)!

Let’s push on with the idea that tense use in reported speech is no different to how tenses would be normally used. Logically, of course, if what we’re reporting is still true, there’s no need to use past tenses at all! So the following, while ‘reported’, are all perfectly correct:

She said she’s feeling unwell. Can you get her a glass of water?

He told me he hasn’t spoken to anyone about it before.

They said they’ll call back later.

Furthermore, it’s likely that the actual direct speech was different. The original version may well have been something like:

I feel really rough. I think might be sick

Honestly, I haven’t told a soul about it. I’ve been carrying it about with me all this time.

Don’t worry. We’ll have to come back this way anyway, so we can drop by again then.

It can actually be pretty weird if someone actually reports something word for word. For instance:

They said I didn’t need to worry. They would have to come back later so they could drop by again then.

> OK. Thank you for the message … autistic person!

Similarly, all the other rules about changes are largely redundant when you think about it from the point of view of just telling a story or giving some relevant information as opposed to doing a mathematical transformation in your head! Why, for example, would anyone use ‘today’ instead of ‘that day’ or ‘the same day’ if they actually wanted to talk about today! Or use ‘the following day’ when they actually want to talk about ‘tomorrow’? Why would someone use I or We when they are reporting what someone else has said? Yes, these ‘mistakes’ may occur when we ask students to perform a transformation, but they are not mistakes that happen when a student is trying to convey their own real meanings. The exercises are designed to elicit these mistakes and we fail to realise this at our peril.

Which brings me to the last point: how these things are practised. Reported speech is rarely practised as part of a story, but nearly always as some interview which you listen to and then report. Has any teacher ever honestly listened to such reports and thought “Yes, that all sounds very natural and what a good job I did with this”:

“Hey, my friend he says [said], yes he said he is Spanish [was Spanish – remember it goes back], yes he said he was Spanish and he said he was a teacher and he said he’d got married last year, and he said he is [was] he was going to Cuba in the summer”.

Just shoot me now!

It does makes you realise, though, that a lot of what we say is basically the reporting of speech. How else do we find out that someone is Spanish, a teacher, got married last year and is going to Cuba in the summer? Yet when we put ‘he said’ in front of it, it becomes a whole new category of grammar!

It’s nonsense. We know it’s nonsense, right? But we’re also sometimes trapped as writers and teachers by the grammar syllabus imposed by publishers, or a ministry of education, or simple tradition. What might be a way out here? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Let’s just teach reported speech as part of normal tense teaching / narratives.

2) Correct the use of tenses, pronouns etc. in terms of the use of tenses rather than according to a rule of indirect speech – and do it when students are trying to produce real reporting.

3) Practise it as part of telling stories or talking about broken promises, etc.

4) Come up with some other context where you might typically report such as:

So what did the doctor say?

Did you speak to the landlord?

Did you speak to the teacher?

and then give answers in terms of general reports of the conversation rather than transforming the exact words. You will probably need to focus at least as much on the words these people typically use in these conversations as on the grammar.

5) If you do do transformations – and you might need to because of exams – don’t confuse instructions about completing the exam task with rules for the real world!

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  • Exactly one of the points I’ll be making on this year’s IATEFL talk. This is what Parrot (Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2010) says about direct and reported speech: “In fact, the two are rarely interchangeable – in reality we almost never use reported speech to convey exactly what someone has said. If we are interested in what was said exactly, we generally use direct speech.” and
    “(…) there is nothing particularly special about the tenses in reported speech.”
    That pretty much sums it up. Far more interesting could be activities, where you select the gist of someone’s message. Which ideas will I report? What is redundant information?
    To be continued in Glasgow …

  • Julie Smith

    Finally! I have been having this internal argument for so long it is nice to see somebody else thinks the same. I always feel like the devil reincarnate when I see my students faces with this subject.

  • Nail, head, boink.

    • Hugh Dellar

      Glad you enjoyed it. THere’ll be a follow-up article on this tomorrow.

    • Lexicallab

      Glad you enjoyed it. There’ll be a follow-up article on this tomorrow.

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