Direct Speech Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Direct speech is a report of the exact words used by a speaker or writer. It is usually placed inside quotation marks and accompanied by a reporting verb or signal phrase.

ThoughtCo / Vin Ganapathy

Direct speech is a report of the exact words used by a speaker or writer. Contrast with indirect speech. Also called direct discourse.

Direct speech is usually placed inside quotation marks and accompanied by a reporting verb, signal phrase, or quotative frame.

Examples and Observations

  • I went in search of the good beer. Along the way, I caught an intriguing snippet of conversation in the sunroom:
    So if I win at that table, I’ll go on to the World Series,” said the mom I know as some kind of government contractor.
    World Series?” you ask.
    Of Poker,” she replied. “I went last year.
    (Petula Dvorak, "White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner Has Nothing on Suburban Fete." The Washington Post, May 3, 2012)
  • "How old are you?" the man asked.
    "The little boy, at the eternal question, looked at the man suspiciously for a minute and then said, "Twenty-six. Eight hunnerd and forty eighty."
    His mother lifted her head from the book. "Four," she said, smiling fondly at the little boy.
    "Is that so?" the man said politely to the little boy. "Twenty-six." He nodded his head at the mother across the aisle. "Is that your mother?"
    The little boy leaned forward to look and then said, "Yes, that's her."
    "What's your name?" the man asked.
    The little boy looked suspicious again. "Mr. Jesus," he said.
    (Shirley Jackson, "The Witch." The Lottery and Other Stories. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1949)

Direct Speech and Indirect Speech

"While direct speech purports to give a verbatim rendition of the words that were spoken, indirect speech is more variable in claiming to represent a faithful report of the content or content and form of the words that were spoken. It is important to note, however, that the question of whether and how faithful a given speech report actually is, is of a quite different order. Both direct and indirect speech are stylistic devices for conveying messages. The former is used as if the words being used were those of another, which are therefore pivoted to a deictic center different from the speech situation of the report. Indirect speech, in contrast, has its deictic center in the report situation and is variable with respect to the extent that faithfulness to the linguistic form of what was said is being claimed." (Florian Coulmas, "Reported Speech: Some General Issues." Direct and Indirect Speech, ed. by F. Coulmas. Walter de Gruyter, 1986)

Direct Speech as Drama

When a speaking event is reported via direct speech forms, it is possible to include many features that dramatize the way in which an utterance was produced. The quotative frame can also include verbs that indicate the speaker's manner of expression (e.g. cry, exclaim, gasp), voice quality (e.g. mutter, scream, whisper), and type of emotion (e.g. giggle, laugh, sob). It can also include adverbs (e.g. angrily, brightly, cautiously, hoarsely, quickly, slowly) and descriptions of the reported speaker's style and tone of voice, as illustrated in [5].

[5a] "I have some good news," she whispered in a mischievous way.
[5b] "What is it?" he snapped immediately.
[5c] "Can't you guess?" she giggled.
[5d] "Oh, no! Don't tell me you're pregnant" he wailed, with a whining nasal sound in his voice.

The literary style of the examples in [5] is associated with an older tradition. In contemporary novels, there is often no indication, other than separate lines, of which character is speaking, as the direct speech forms are presented like a dramatic script, one after the other. (George Yule, Explaining English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1998)

Like: Signaling Direct Speech in Conversation

An interesting new way of signaling direct speech has developed among younger English speakers and is spreading from the United States to Britain. This occurs entirely in spoken conversation, rather than in writing.

- . . . Though the construction is new [in 1994] and not yet standard, its meaning is very clear. It seems to be used more often to report thoughts rather than actual speech. (James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Differences in Reported Speech

Even in the days of audio and video recording, there can be surprising differences in direct quotations attributed to the same source. A simple comparison of the same speech event covered in different newspapers can illustrate the problem. When his country was not invited to a meeting of the Commonwealth of Nations in 2003, the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, said the following in a televised speech, according to The New York Times:

"If our sovereignty is what we have to lose to be re-admitted into the Commonwealth," Mr. Mugabe was quoted as saying on Friday, "we will say goodbye to the Commonwealth. And perhaps the time has now come to say so." (Wines 2003)

And the following according to an Associated Press story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"If our sovereignty is to be real, then we will say goodbye to the Commonwealth, [sic; second quotation mark missing] Mugabe said in remarks broadcast on state television. "Perhaps the time has come to say so." (Shaw 2003)

Did Mugabe produce both versions of these comments? If he gave only one, which published version is accurate? Do the versions have different sources? Are the differences in the exact wording significant or not?
(Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion. Oxford University Press, 2011)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Direct Speech Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, September 2). Direct Speech Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Direct Speech Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).