Reported Speech

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Norman rockwell - reported speech
This illustration by Norman Rockwell is titled Chain of Gossip. Curtis Publishing Company

Reported speech is the report of one speaker or writer on the words spoken, written, or thought by someone else. Also called reported discourse.

Traditionally, two broad categories of reported speech have been recognized: direct speech (in which the original speaker's words are quoted word for word) and indirect speech (in which the original speaker's thoughts are conveyed without using the speaker's exact words).

However, a number of linguists have challenged this distinction, noting (among other things) that there's significant overlap between the two categories. Deborah Tannen, for instance, has argued that "[w] hat is commonly referred to as reported speech or direct quotation in conversation is constructed dialogue."


  • "Reported speech is not just a particular grammatical form or transformation, as some grammar books might suggest. We have to realise that reported speech represents in fact a kind of translation, a transposition that necessarily takes into account two different cognitive perspectives: the point of view of the person whose utterance is being reported, and that of a speaker who is actually reporting that utterance."
    (Teresa Dobrzyńska, "Rendering Metaphor in Reported Speech," in Relative Points of View: Linguistic Representation of Culture, ed. by Magda Stroińska. Berghahn Books, 2001)

    Tannen on the Creation of Dialogue

    • "I wish to question the conventional American literal conception of 'reported speech' and claim instead that uttering dialogue in conversation is as much a creative act as is the creation of dialogue in fiction and drama. 
    • "The casting of thoughts and speech in dialogue creates particular scenes and characters--and . . . it is the particular that moves readers by establishing and building on a sense of identification between speaker or writer and hearer or reader. As teachers of creative writing exhort neophyte writers, the accurate representation of the particular communicates universality, whereas direct attempts to represent universality often communicate nothing." (Deborah Tannen, Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue, and Imagery in Conversational Discourse, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2007)

      Goffman on Reported Speech

      • "[Erving] Goffman's work has proven foundational in the investigation of reported speech itself. While Goffman is not in his own work concerned with the analysis of actual instances of interaction (for a critique, see Schlegoff, 1988), it provides a framework for researchers concerned with investigating reported speech in its most basic environment of occurrence: ordinary conversation. . . .
      • "Goffman . . . proposed that reported speech is a natural upshot of a more general phenomenon in interaction: shifts of 'footing,' defined as 'the alignment of an individual to a particular utterance . . .' ([Forms of Talk,] 1981: 227). Goffman is concerned to break down the roles of speaker and hearer into their constituent parts. . . . [O]ur ability to use reported speech stems from the fact that we can adopt different roles within the 'production format,' and it is one of the many ways in which we constantly change footing as we interact . . .."(Rebecca Clift and Elizabeth Holt, Introduction. Reporting Talk: Reported Speech in Interaction. Cambridge University Press, 2007)

      Reported Speech in Legal Contexts

      • "​[R]eported speech occupies a prominent position in our use of language in the context of the law. Much of what is said in this context has to do with rendering people's sayings: we report the words that accompany other people's doings in order to put the latter in the correct perspective. As a consequence, much of our judiciary system, both in the theory and in the practice of law, turns around the ability to prove or disprove the correctness of a verbal account of a situation. The problem is how to summarize that account, from the initial police report to the final imposed sentence, in legally binding terms, so that it can go 'on the record,' that is to say, be reported in its definitive, forever immutable form as part of a 'case' in the books." (Jacob Mey, When Voices Clash: A Study in Literary Pragmatics. Walter de Gruyter, 1998)