Indirect Speech Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

direct and indirect speech
A combination of direct speech and indirect speech ("something about Indiana") from the short story "Fidelity" by Wendell Berry ( That Distant Land: The Collected Stories, 2004).

Indirect speech is a report on what someone else said or wrote without using that person's exact words. Also called indirect discourse.

Unlike direct speech, indirect speech is not usually placed inside quotation marks. In the following example, notice how the verb in the present tense (is) changes to the past tense (was) in indirect speech. Also, notice the change in word order in the indirect version.

  • Direct speech: "Where is your textbook?" the teacher asked me.
  • Indirect speech: The teacher asked me where my textbook was.

In free indirect speech, which is commonly used in fiction), the reporting clause (or signal phrase) is omitted.

Examples and Observations

"So then she said that Henry began to get restless. So then she told him she was very glad I was going to get married at last because I had had such bad luck, that every time I became engaged something seemed to happen to my fiance. So Henry asked her what, for instance. So Dorothy said a couple were in the insane asylum, one had shot himself for debt, and the county farm was taking care of the remainder." 

(Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, 1925)

Syntactic Shifts Accompanying Indirect Speech

When direct discourse is converted into indirect discoursepronouns and tenses frequently have to be changed:

Catherine said, "I don't want to intrude."
Catherine said that she didn't want to intrude.

Although I is appropriate in the direct quotation of what someone said, when reporting indirectly someone else's speech, the speaker or writer must change the pronoun. Similarly, the verb in the direct quotation is in the present tense the speaker would have used; in the reported speech, as the situation occurred in the past, the verb must be changed to the past tense.

(Thomas P. Klammer, Muriel R. Schulz, and Angela Della Volpe, Analyzing English Grammar, 4th ed. Pearson, 2004)

[U]nder indirect speech rules the past tense is backshifted to the past perfect:

Direct speech: "The exhibition finished last week," explained Ann.
Indirect speech: Ann explained that the exhibition had finished the preceding week.
(Example from Quirk, 1973: 343)

(Peter Fenn, A Semantic and Pragmatic Examination of the English Perfect. Gunter Narr Verlag, 1987)

Mixing Direct and Indirect Speech

The mixture of direct and indirect forms within single sentences is not uncommon in newspaper reporting. Extracts [12], [13], and [14] are brief examples of the style and show how the topic character, called MacLaine in [12], Kennedy in [13], and Louie in [14], can be the referent of both third person (she/he) and first-person pronouns (I/my) within the same sentence.

[12] MacLaine concedes that one of the reasons she has had no major romantic involvement "for a while" is that she "would have to find a man who shared my spiritual beliefs."

[13] Kennedy has toned down the punk look and vows "not to blurt out exactly what I think."

[14] When he was in the fourth grade at St. Joseph of the Palisades Elementary School, his teacher warned Louie's father, William, a real-estate broker, "that I might be hanging round with the wrong types of boys."

The quotation marks in examples [12], [13], and [14] represent major shifts of perspective for the reader. The reader is expected to recognize that the non-quoted parts represent the reporter's perspective whereas the parts in quotation marks are a direct presentation of the speaker's perspective. 

(George Yule, Explaining English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1998)

The Rhetoric of Indirect Speech

"Indirect speech offers a rhetor more opportunities for interpretive intervention. Readers and listeners usually assume that the words, especially the keywords, quoted indirectly are the same words that would be quoted directly. But they need not be. . . . Al Gore was widely quoted, indirectly, as stating that he 'invented the Internet,' a claim cited to his discredit by his critics. According to a transcript of the interview where Gore made the original comment, the direct speech version subsequently paraphrased was, 'I took the initiative in creating the internet.'" 

(Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion. Oxford University Press, 2011)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Indirect Speech Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Jan. 8, 2018, Nordquist, Richard. (2018, January 8). Indirect Speech Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Indirect Speech Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 19, 2018).