Why Reported Speech Is a Waste of Time (And What You Should Say Instead)

Why reported speech is a waste of time and what you should say instead

Have you ever walked away from an English lesson saying, “What?! How?! Why does this language have to be so complicated?!”

If you’ve felt like this, you’ve either just walked out of a lesson on phrasal verbs, or it was reported speech. (Or you were in the Arabic class by mistake. Don’t do that again.)

Reported speech is strange, has lots of complicated rules and doesn’t feel very instinctive for most learners.

But even worse, it’s almost completely useless in the real world.

I can spend a whole evening with friends and hear maybe one or two examples of reported speech — in a whole evening.

That’s because we just don’t use it much.

Don’t get me wrong, it has a place in formal, academic and some (but not all) business settings.

When we use reported speech we are being very clear and precise but of course that makes us seem cold and wooden. Like a pencil in the fridge:

Cold and Wooden (a pencil in the fridge)

But generally speaking, we don’t use it.

What do we use instead?

Well, as usual, we break the rules and when we’re talking about what other people have said, we really create very ungrammatical sentences.

But these alternatives to reported speech are what expert English speakers from around the world use, and they sound completely natural.

They’re also much easier to use.

So even if you don’t want to sound relaxed and a bit ungrammatical, these are still very useful to know so that you can recognise them when you hear them.

Before we go into these, a quick observation:

All of these expressions (except for the last one — kind of) use what we call “direct speech.” That means no changing the tense, no remembering to change “his” to “my” to “your” to whatever.

I love it when the easiest option turns out to be the best one!

Reported Speech Alternative #1 – “He was like …”

This expression is very informal. However, most expert users of English, even well-educated, middle-class English teachers like me will admit to using it.

Why isn’t it taught in English courses?

I guess a lot of course books and language schools are afraid of teaching “uneducated” and informal English.

But this doesn’t make sense for two reasons:

  1. People who are learning English need to know what people really use. If they don’t learn it, they won’t be prepared to communicate with the world in English.
  2. It can’t be that “uneducated” if people like me are using it, can it?

Anyway, the formula for this is pretty simple. But first, let’s look at a conversation between Ranjit and Karen.

The situation

Karen, despite being a wonderful gorilla, is a terrible influence on Ranjit. That’s because she’s trying to persuade him to commit the terrible crime of stealing a traffic cone.

Ranjit: No way! Karen: Go on. It’ll be fun! Ranjit: No! We’ll get in trouble. Karen: It’s cool! I’ve done it before and I never got into trouble. Ranjit: You’ve done it before? Really? Karen: Yeah. Ali and I did it last week. I’ve got three of them now. Ranjit: Hmmm… OK.

Because this blog likes to show that crime doesn’t pay (especially the very serious crime of traffic cone theft), Ranjit gets caught by a police officer. (Karen’s run away because she’s actually not a very good friend.)

Ranjit is trying to explain that Karen was pushing her into her crime:

Ranjit: Then she was like, “Go on, it’ll be fun!” and I was like, “No way, man. We’ll get into trouble,” but she was like, “It’s cool. I’ve done this loads of times before and I never got into trouble.” Then I was like, “really?” and she says, “Yeah. Ali and I did it last week.” That’s when I said, “Yeah, OK. Let’s do it.”

What’s going on here?

OK. Take a look at Ranjit describing the situation to the cop. There are a few interesting things going on here:

Interesting thing #1 – “She’s like …”

This is the main point. Instead of “she said …” Ranjit usually uses the phrase “she’s like …” This makes the story flow much more than “she said …”

How does it work?

It’s quite simple: you can add the direct speech after the phrase “he’s like …”

So when he says, “Hey, you. Don’t touch my giraffe!” you can say, “He was like, ‘Hey, you. Don’t touch my giraffe!’”

Interesting thing #2 – Changing between present and past tense

This is strangely common. When we’re telling a story with a lot of dialogue in it, we can actually shift from the past to the present.

So we go from “he was like …” to “he’s like …”

There are two reasons for this. First of all, it’s easier as “he’s” is easier to say than “he was.”

But more importantly, when you use the present tense to tell a story in the past, it feels more real, and that means that whoever’s listening to you will be more interested.

This is a great technique if you want to persuade people to do something. But that’s a post for another day.

Interesting thing #3 – Using different ways to report what someone said

Ranjit really likes using the phrase “she was like” (or “she’s like”). But did you notice that he doesn’t use it all the time? (He also used the phrase “she said …”)

That’s because if you use the same phrase all the time, it sounds boring and repetitive. Variety makes language more interesting!

So if you’re describing a conversation with a lot of dialogue, be sure to mix up your phrases!

Interesting thing #4 – He doesn’t say exactly what Karen said

This is quite normal. Do you remember a conversation word by word the next day, the next week or even a few minutes later?

In any language, it’s natural just to say the general meaning instead of the exact words. Hey, we’re all human! (Except for Karen, who’s a gorilla. Obviously.)

Reported Speech Alternative #2 – “He went …”

This expression is very similar to “he was like …” It’s very informal, but a lot of people use it because it’s easier and more relaxed.

And there are no complicated rules!

The situation

Here’s Adam. Adam’s quite a gullible person. (He believes everyone.) He also has no hair and wants to grow some:

middle aged man in sunglasses

Here’s Shirley. She makes money from tricking people.

woman in sunglasses and a big hat

One day Shirley meets Adam:

SHIRLEY: Hi Adam. I’ve got these fantastic pills. They’re amazing.
ADAM: Really? What do they do?
SHIRLEY: They make your hair grow back.
ADAM: Wow. Can I have some?
SHIRLEY: Sure. But if you want them to work, you have to take one a day for 6 months.
ADAM: No problem. How much?
SHIRLEY: They cost £5.
SHIRLEY: Per pill.
ADAM: Ummm … Yeah, OK.

Should Adam have trusted Shirley? Probably not.

But he did, and now he looks like this:

Adam: So I saw Shirley and she’s like, “I’ve got these amazing pills,” and I said, “What do they do?” and she went, “They make your hair grow back,” so I was like, “Can I have some?” and she says, “Sure, but you’ve gotta take them for 6 months and they’re £5 a pill.” It’s expensive, but I really wanted my hair back, so I go, “Sure let’s do it.” Now I have trees on my head.

What’s going on here?

The interesting things:

So, like in the first example:

  • The formula is the same. We just have “he went …” plus the exact words that we’re reporting.
  • Changes between present and past tense — Partly due to laziness and partly for effect, we can change between “he went …” and “he goes …” Your English teacher might hate this — but it’s what we do!
  • Changing between “he’s like,” “he went” and “he said.” Keep it diverse. Using different ways of doing the same thing makes your English more interesting and natural.
  • Sometimes the words aren’t the same. When we remember a conversation, we remember the meaning, not the exact words. If the meaning is the same, it doesn’t really matter if you report different words (“excellent” instead of “fantastic,” for example.)

There is, however, one important difference here:

We can use “he’s like …” to report what someone said in almost any (informal) situation. But we usually use “he went …” to describe a response or a reply.

And I said, “What do they do?” and she went, “They make your hair grow back.”

Reported Speech Alternative #3 – “She said …”

This last one is a bit different for two reasons. Firstly, it’s less informal and secondly, it looks a bit more like reported speech.

As I said at the beginning of this post, we almost never use reported speech — mostly because we like to make things easy and reported speech is just too complex when we want to describe a conversation quickly and easily.

But we do use this expression, which is “half” reported speech.

The situation

Let’s finish off today’s post on a lovely romantic note.

Here’s Jo and Emma. And they’re in love:

I love you so much. I loved you when I first saw you. I love you now and I’ll love you forever. I want to give you a piece of rainbow in a big, red box.

The problem is most people don’t believe in Jo and Emma’s relationship, and they think that Emma is just using Jo because Jo’s parents are rich. (I mean, check out that bike.)

So when Jo’s family challenge Jo about Emma, Jo tells them what Emma said:

Jo’s family: Emma just wants our money. There’s no real love there. Jo: But she said she loves me so much and she loved me when she first saw me and she loves me now and she’ll love me forever. She also said she wants to give me a piece of rainbow in a big, red box.

What’s going on here?

Interesting thing #1

Did you notice that although it looks like Jo’s using reported speech, there isn’t any change of tense (“I love you” → “She said she loves me”)? It’s just the same tense that Emma used.

Again, this is for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, it’s easier. What can I say? We’re lazy! But also it makes it more efficient.

Secondly, because Jo’s using the same tenses that Emma used, it’s like we’re hearing Emma’s voice, not Jo’s. It becomes more real and closer to reality. So it can be more convincing.

Interesting thing #2

So that was the grammar. But what about the situation?

Here, we have a slightly different situation. Instead of describing a conversation, Jo’s simply describing what one person said.

So what does this mean?

It means that “she’s like …” and “she went …” are better for conversations with a lot of small lines, but “she said …” is more suitable for long stretches of speech.

But remember that it’s still great to mix your expressions. Variety keeps things interesting.

So next time you’re watching a film, TV show or you’re trying to understand that annoying British client who speaks too fast, keep your eyes (ears) open for one of these phrases.

37 thoughts on “Why Reported Speech Is a Waste of Time (And What You Should Say Instead)

  1. Hi Gabriel. Your explanations are awesome! I teach English in college for student-teachers and I always like to them tell what is not in the books, like you said, the real English. Thanks so much for your help.

    1. Thanks Marcia!

      Yes, I think English of the polished, shiny world of “Very nice to meet you, thank you” course books is finally having its day.

      So glad you found it useful!

  2. This is a great class in itsefl. It would be great to get examples from TV shows or movies and have learners analyze the way the language is used! In the traditional ELT/EFL context, this would be great for intermediate learners and up after they have been presented to the formal structures, don’t you think?
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

    1. Thanks Stephan,

      Yes, I agree. A lot of this is kind of just a basis of learning and being made aware of the structures. I think film and TV would be OK, but they’re all a bit too scripted, though. Nonetheless, that could be good for lower-level learners.
      Feel free to take any of this and adapt it in your lesson by the way. I’d love to hear how you get on!

  3. thank you, Gabriel! your articles are my favourites! always useful, informative and hilarious! once again THANK YOU!

  4. I’m so lucky to read all these extremely interesting lessons of yours. They’re all well- presented and with clear examples that help us to use the language the way you, the native speakers, do.
    What about the use of Causative Form? It may be interesting to have an idea of how and when it is used.
    Can’t wait for the next one!

    1. Wow – many, many thanks Anastasia! Much appreciated.

      I love the idea of writing about the causative. I’ve noticed that things like “the door closed” and the “the door was closed” can get really confusing.

      It’s on the list!

  5. Very interesting and indeed true but when you are preparing students sitting for exams and have to do let’s say transformations ” he was like…” won’t be acceptable. So even though they aren’t actually used in oral speech you have to teach RS.

    1. Hi Dina,

      I totally agree. Whenever we’re teaching for exams, we have to completely disregard what comes naturally in most cases and focus on what needs to be learned to pass the exams. To be fair, with some exams the crossover between what’s natural and what’s necessary is quite large. Other exams (I’m especially thinking of TOEFL) have a very slim crossover.
      Your point is especially valid when we’re thinking of reported speech. I can’t think of a single exam that would accept “I was like no way man!” But some of the better ones are starting to disregard reported speech as they recognize it as something we don’t often use.

      All of this, of course, doesn’t change our situation: we need to teach based on the learner’s needs. If those needs involve passing an exam, our teaching approach depends on that.

  6. RE: “Ranjit is trying to explain that Karen was pushing her into her crime:”

    Why not: “… that it was Karen, who pushed him … ” ?

    1. Good question:

      The answer is “there isn’t any reason why not!”

      There’s often more than one way to say something. But you do make a good point — we often have a choice when it comes to which language to use and that choice determines how we express ourselves.

      In your example, (…that it was Karen who …), the speaker is pointing his/her finger directly at Karen (with the language. Not with his/her actual finger). But both sentences work.

    1. Sorry you didn’t like this post, Derek.

      For our blog posts we tend to take a descriptive approach rather than a prescriptive one.

      We tend to use a lot of corpus research while researching the posts and using corpora has confirmed that the forms in this post are very commonly used these days. It’s important for learners of English to be prepared for them as they are likely to come across them.

  7. Derek Pirrie is an idiot.

    I’ve been teaching for 12 years and reported speech has an awful “effort to learn” vs “practical usage” ratio. Basically, students are spending loads of money on something that is very hard to learn and apply naturally, especially when most people around them are not using it.

    It’s important to make a clear distinction between everyday spoken usage and academic English, of course. However, as an IELTS examiner, the number one rule for the oral test is “How much did the candidate sound like a native speaker?” So, there ya go.

    Teaching reported speech would have been easy. But you’ve thought about it from the student’s point of view and provided something more valuable.

  8. I like this quite a bit actually. I think traditional reported speech is cumbersome and also useless. I teach my students to only change the pronouns/possessive or demonstrative adjectives and forget about the back-stepping of tenses. I only have one discrepancy with your explanation, and it might make your explanation easier. I don’t believe people are changing tenses with “She was like…” and “She’s like…”. I believe in this case, we native speakers are using “She’s” as a short-hand slang contraction for ‘She was”. Nice article, thank you.

    1. Hi Zak.

      Thanks for the positive feedback.

      You make a really interesting point. I guess speakers might be changing tenses and just “over-contracting.” Though I always imagined it as them shifting to the “close present” to make the speech more vivid. You know, like when people tell a story … “We were all just sitting there, watching TV, when Jack walks in and starts shouting at us!”

      Both explanations are appealing. I had a quick look for some studies on this and this is the closest I could find. But no time to read it!


      Thanks again!

  9. Hi, it’s a nice post revealing more “natural” ways to say things. What I don’t get (and not only from you, but from the academic world in general) is why reported speech is a written feature rather than a spoken one, not used in real-life conversation. I don’t get that “conspiracy”. I mean, your examples are great but I think it’s an everyday thing telling someone someting that another one said (Convoluted on purpose)
    – Honey, how was your day?
    – Not great. Boss told us I shouldn’t even dream of getting a raise. Also John asked me to remind you that Janie (…)

    1. Hi Sebastian,

      Thanks for your nice, intelligent comment!

      I really like the fact that your example of standard reported speech sounds completely natural and is totally plausible.

      I suppose the main purpose of writing this post was to counterbalance two problems that are still very prevalent in the English teaching world:

      1. Reported speech is given so much attention compared to how much it’s actually used — this includes all these complicated “rules” that are broken in spoken English ALL the time. Things like “He said that he’d been a professional footballer when he was younger.” We see students getting penalised in tests and during speaking practice when they say “He said that he was a professional footballer when he was younger,” even though that’s exactly how most first-language speakers would put it. Same thing for things like “She told me she played tennis” versus “She told me she plays tennis.”

      2. Other everyday uses of reporting people’s speech, like the ones in this post, get almost no attention. This leads to students leaving English courses with a massive ‘gap’ in their language performance. This is especially apparent when they try to understand a film or start integrating with high-level English speaking communities and discover that what they learned at school is rather stilted and soon readapt to more fluid forms.

      You’re right though — there’s no “conspiracy.” It’s just that the standard reported speech forms are easier to teach and categorise. They’re even worth teaching … a bit. But not with whole units dedicated to them without any acknowledgement that there are lots of other ways out there to express the same thing.

    1. That’s OK! It could be the informal “we” as in “Give us a pound, would you?”

      I once used this in a text message to an American friend. She thought it absolutely ridiculous thinking I was using the Royal “we.” She had no idea that that use of first person plural had dropped a couple of social classes!

  10. Very interesting topic. As a French-speaking bloke, reported speech is very confusing to me and I hate it. I can’t help but thinking that people who use reported speech speak “broken” and “lazy” English. It feels to me that they don’t command the basic grammatical rules of English (being able to make a relative sentence). To make it clear, I know I’m plain wrong but this is how I feel and I immediately discredit anyone who uses reported speech too often. To my ears, it does not flow at all.

    1. Fair point, though I’m happy to hear that you feel, deep down inside, that it’s not quite what’s going on.

      Just because we don’t choose to use a more advanced feature of a language doesn’t mean we can’t. People can “switch registers” all the time.

      The fact of the matter is that, most of the time, we don’t need to use more formal English. The most challenging thing for English learners, in my experience, is not understanding formal English, which was, after all, designed to be as clear as possible, but to understand the less formal English – the more common spoken form. Advanced structures, ironically, allow for more clarity. It’s the simplified ones that can be tougher and these are the ones I’m really interested in as a teacher and linguist.

      Let’s take a random musical example as an analogy.

      Guns N’ Roses.

      They’re music is pretty straight-forward, simple rock, right?

      But, if he needs to, Axl Rose can play some pretty complex classical piano. However, if he did that in the middle of a GnR gig, he’d be booed off stage.

      I think it isn’t helpful to pass judgement on people because of what register they decide to operate in. It isn’t broken or lazy. It’s just different.

      There’s a time and a place for everything! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *