French Grammar: Direct and Indirect Speech

How to Speak About Someone Else's Words in French

Learning to use proper grammar is an important part of studying the French language. One element of that is direct and indirect speech, or when you are speaking about what someone else has said.

There are a few grammar rules that you should know when it comes to these styles of speech and this French grammar lesson will walk you through the basics.

French Direct and Indirect Speech (Discours direct et indirect)

In French, there are two different ways to express the words of another person: direct speech (or direct style) and indirect speech (indirect style).

  • In direct speech, you are quoting the words of another person.
  • In indirect speech, you are referencing what another person has said without quoting them directly.

Direct Speech (Discours direct)

Direct speech is very simple. You will use it to impart the exact words of the original speaker are reported in quotes.

  • Paul dit : « J'aime les fraises ». - Paul says, "I like strawberries."
  • Lise répond : « Jean les déteste ». - Lisa replies, "Jean hates them."
  • « Jean est stupide » déclare Paul.* - "Jean is stupid" Paul declares.

Notice the use of « » around the quoted sentences. The quotation marks used in English " " don't exist in French, instead the guillemets « » are used. 

Indirect Speech (Discours indirect)

In indirect speech, the original speaker's words are reported without quotes in a subordinate clause (introduced by que). 

  • Paul dit qu'il aime les fraises. - Paul says that he loves strawberries.
  • Lise répond que Jean les déteste. - Lisa replies that Jean hates them.
  • Paul déclare que Jean est stupide. - Paul declares that Jean is stupid.

The rules associated with indirect speech are not as simple as they are with direct speech and this subject requires further examination.

Reporting Verbs for Indirect Speech

There are many verbs, called reporting verbs, that can be used to introduce indirect speech:

  • affirmer - to assert
  • ajouter - to add
  • annoncer - to announce
  • crier - to shout
  • déclarer - to declare
  • dire - to say
  • expliquer - to explain
  • insister - to insist
  • prétendre - to claim
  • proclamer - to proclaim
  • répondre - to answer
  • soutenir - to maintain

Switching From Direct to Indirect Speech

Indirect speech tends to be more complicated than direct speech, because it requires certain changes (in both English and French). There are three primary changes that may need to be made.

#1 - Personal pronouns and possessives may need to be changed:

DSDavid déclare : « Je veux voir mamère ».David declares, "I want to see my mother."
ISDavid déclare qu'il veut voir sa mère.David declares that he wants to see his mother.

#2 - Verb conjugations need to change to agree with the new subject:

DSDavid déclare : « Je veux voir ma mère ». David declares, "I want to see my mother."
ISDavid déclare qu'il veut voir sa mère.David declares that he wants to see his mother.

#3 - In the above examples, there is no change in the tense because the statements are in the present. However, if the main clause is in the past tense, the verb tense of the subordinate clause may also need to change:

DSDavid a déclaré : « Je veux voir ma mère ». David declared, "I want to see my mother."
ISDavid a déclaré qu'il voulait voir sa mère.David declared that he wanted to see his mother.

The following chart shows the correlation between verb tenses in direct and indirect speech. Use it to determine how to rewrite direct speech as indirect speech or vice versa.

Note: Présent/Imparfait to Imparfait is by far the most common - you don't need to worry too much about the rest.

 Main verbSubordinate verb may change...
 Direct speech Indirect speech
Au PassePrésent or ImparfaitImparfait
Passé composé or Plus-que-parfaitPlus-que-parfait
Futur or ConditionnelConditionnel
Futur antérieur or Conditionnel passéConditionnel passé
Au présentno change