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. 

Uses of 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 the exact dialogue spoken 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 between the people involved.

In nonfiction writing or journalism, direct speech can be used to 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

Present Tense

In the first example, notice how 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.

    • 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.

    • 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. If kept as "is going," it would imply that she has not left for the mall just 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.

    Past Tense and Other Changes

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

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

    Also, notice 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.

    The word "that" is sometimes used and sometimes omitted in reporting indirect speech. Either way is fine.

    In commands and questions, you follow the same patterns, especially in changing the person and pronouns, as commands and questions will often be in second person (you).

    • Direct speech: She asked, "Do you want to come along?"
    • Indirect speech: She asked if I wanted to come along.
    • Direct speech: She said, "Oh, please come with me."
    • Indirect speech: She asked me to please come with her.

    Of course, not all questions will be in the second person. When converting these, they'll follow the same pattern as a third-person statement.

    • Direct speech: He asked, "Is that guy a lunatic?"
    • Indirect speech: He asked if that guy was a lunatic.
    • Indirect speech: He asked if that guy is a lunatic.

      The Rhetoric of Indirect Speech

      In her book "Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion," Jeanne Fahnestock cautions about changing the meaning of what's being indirectly quoted. "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.'" 

      The context behind the statement is that during his time in Congress and the vice-presidential chair, Gore was a proponent of developing the internet, such as by connecting computers interagency in the government, recognizing the importance of high-speed computing, supporting legislation that invested in its growth, supporting the privatization of the Internet, and more. He never claimed to have invented it. So be careful when paraphrasing quotes to not include meaning that wasn't in the original statement.

      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 his or her thoughts intermingled with narration.

      Typically in fiction italics show a character's exact thought, and quote marks show dialogue. Free indirect speech makes do without the italics and just 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, among others.