Indirect Speech Definition and Examples

Close-up young women talking, while sitting in bunk bed
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Indirect speech is a report on what someone else said or wrote without using that person's exact words (which is called direct speech). It's also called indirect discourse or reported speech

Direct vs. Indirect Speech

In direct speech, a person's exact words are placed in quotation marks and set off with a comma and a reporting clause or signal phrase, such as "said" or "asked." In fiction writing, using direct speech can display the emotion of an important scene in vivid detail through the words themselves as well as the description of how something was said. In nonfiction writing or journalism, direct speech can emphasize a particular point, by using a source's exact words.

Indirect speech is paraphrasing what someone said or wrote. In writing, it functions to move a piece along by boiling down points that an interview source made. Unlike direct speech, indirect speech is not usually placed inside quote marks. However, both are attributed to the speaker because they come directly from a source.

How to Convert

In the first example below, the verb in the present tense in the line of direct speech (is) may change to the past tense (was) in indirect speech, though it doesn't necessarily have to with a present-tense verb. If it makes sense in context to keep it present tense, that's fine.

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

Keeping the present tense in reported speech can give the impression of immediacy, that it's being reported soon after the direct quote,such as:

  • Direct speech: Bill said, "I can't come in today, because I'm sick."
  • Indirect speech: Bill said (that) he can't come in today because he's sick.

Future Tense

An action in the future (present continuous tense or future) doesn't have to change verb tense, either, as these examples demonstrate.

  • Direct speech: Jerry said, "I'm going to buy a new car."
  • Indirect speech: Jerry said (that) he's going to buy a new car.
  • Direct speech: Jerry said, "I will buy a new car."
  • Indirect speech: Jerry said (that) he will buy a new car.

Indirectly reporting an action in the future can change verb tenses when needed. In this next example, changing the am going to was going implies that she has already left for the mall. However, keeping the tense progressive or continuous implies that the action continues, that she's still at the mall and not back yet.

  • Direct speech: She said, "I'm going to the mall."
  • Indirect speech: She said (that) she was going to the mall.
  • Indirect speech: She said (that) she is going to the mall.

Other Changes

With a past-tense verb in the direct quote, the verb changes to past perfect.

  • Direct speech: She said, "I went to the mall."
  • Indirect speech: She said (that) she had gone to the mall.

Note the change in first person (I) and second person (your) pronouns and word order in the indirect versions. The person has to change because the one reporting the action is not the one actually doing it. Third person (he or she) in direct speech remains in the third person.

Free Indirect Speech

In free indirect speech, which is commonly used in fiction, the reporting clause (or signal phrase) is omitted. Using the technique is a way to follow a character's point of view—in third-person limited omniscient—and show her thoughts intermingled with narration.

Typically in fiction italics show a character's exact thoughts, and quote marks show dialogue. Free indirect speech makes do without the italics and simply combines the internal thoughts of the character with the narration of the story. Writers who have used this technique include James Joyce, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Zora Neale Hurston, and D.H. Lawrence.