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Reporting speech

10 December 2019

Spoken grammar: lexico-grammatical features of conversation highlighted in corpus research.


Reporting speech

It’s not surprising that, in the to and fro of conversation, we often want to mention the things that other people have said, introducing these reports with verbs like ‘say/ask/suggest’ or, more informally, ‘go’ or the phrase ‘be like’:

Then Angie went, ‘Why don’t we get some something to eat now, before the show starts?’ So I asked her what she wanted, and she was like, ‘I don’t know. You decide.’ Anyway, in the end Max suggested pizzas. 

As above, we often seem to mix verbatim reports with the grammatical and lexical changes that we tend to encourage learners to use. But doing the former – repeating the person’s actual words (or your own), or approximating them – often adds a satisfyingly dramatic effect to the conversation, and is rarely confusing.

Interestingly, moreover, Biber et al in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English ( Using utterance launchers to open quoted speech) note the frequency with which we use a set of marker words (including but, hey, listen, look, oh, okay, well) not only to preface verbatim reports (or approximations), almost like introductory speech marks, but also to suggest an attitude (impatience, surprise etc.) in the speaker:

She looked a bit ill so I said, hey, are you OK?        

He wanted a shower so I went, listen, we’ll miss the train if we don’t go now.  

I said, I’ll dress how I like and she goes, but it’s freezing outside!  

I told her it was my birthday and she said, oh, I’m sorry, I completely forgot.

I’ve left out the speech marks above, firstly because it emphasizes the way in which the direct speech is incorporated into the speaker's utterance, and secondly because it’s not always clear whether the marker word was actually used by the speaker or has been added later by the reporter.


To find out about teaching spoken grammar, you are welcome to visit my online course, Spoken Grammar: A Guide for English Language Teachers.