Spanish Grammar Lesson: Direct vs Indirect Speech

Spanish Grammar Lesson: Direct vs Indirect Speech

The difference between direct and indirect speech (also called reported speech) is pretty easy to understand.  

But it’s not very easy to apply when speaking in a foreign language. It is a very important part of communicating, however, and plays an major role in most conversations.

Read on for a quick introduction and guide to direct vs indirect speech in Spanish.

So, what’s the difference?

That’s a very good question! Before we get too far ahead of ourselves with all the little technicalities, let’s make sure that we understand what we’re dealing with here.

In order to do this, take the following conversation:

Pedro: Where are you going?

Jose: To the store.

1: Will you get milk?

2: Sure, no problem.

Now, let’s say Pedro later goes on to have a conversation with someone else, about the above mentioned interaction. There are some options for how they could go about doing this. Let’s just say it looked something like this:

  • Pedro: I asked Jose where he was going. He said, “to the store.” So, I asked if he would get some milk, and he said “sure, no problem.”

The above recounting of a previous event or exchange with another person is what we’re going to look at. You have two options when doing this.

The first, is by using quotation marks. This is direct speech. This means that the words are being repeated exactly like they were said.

  • He said, “to the store.”
  • …and he said, “sure, no problem.”

The second way of recounting a conversation is through indirect speech. In the example above, this is done through changing the verb tense, although that isn’t always required (we will look at that more later).  

  • Original: Where are you going
    • Reported: I asked him where he was going.
  • Original: Will you get some milk?
    • Reported: I asked if he would get some milk.

Basically, there are 3 important rules to keep in mind when using indirect (reported) speech. They are:

  • You will not use quotation marks
  • Since you’re not quoting, you don’t need to say word-for-word what the person said
  • When reporting what someone said, you generally change the verb tense.

Reporting Verbs

There are still a few things we need to talk about before getting into everyone’s favorite part about grammar–the technicalities.

In order to identify that something is being “reported” or to communicate that you are repeating something that someone said previously, you’ll use a reporting verb. We have them in English as well.
The most common are:

SpanishEnglish meaningExample (in indirect/ reported speech)
Decir*SayMe dijo que tenía que estudiar- He told me he had to study.
Preguntar*AskLe preguntó si podía ir a la fiesta- She asked if he could go to the part.
Querer saber*Wants to knowJuan quiso saber si le podía llevar al cine- Juan wanted to know if I could take him to the movies.
Querer* WantsMaría quería que José hablara con ella.- Maria wanted that José talked with her.
Pedir*To ask forMe pidió que le trajera las llaves- He asked me to bring him the keys.
AnunciarAnnounceEl profesor anunció que tendrémos un examen el martes- The teacher announced that we will have an exam on Tuesday.
ComentarCommentMe comentó que no podía dormir mucho la semana pasada- He told me he couldn’t sleep much last week.
ConfesarConfessAlicia le confesó a su novio que había salido con otro.- Alicia confessed to her boyfriend that she gone out with another man.
ContestarAnswerLe contestamos a Pablo que sí iríamos a la fiesta. -We answered Pablo that yes, we would go to the party.
PrometerPromiseMe prometiste que haría la colada- You promised me you would do the laundry.
QuejarseComplainLos niños se quejaron que no tenían juguetes. - The children complained that they didn’t have toys.
Recordar RemindNos recordaron que la cena empezaba a las 20.00- They reminded us that the party started at 8:00pm.

*Most common of the most common

“Que”–your new best friend

You’ll notice that (almost) all of the examples above in the chart using reported speech include the little word “que.” This is not a coincidence.

When speaking in reported speech you will always use the “que” (meaning “that”). Even if in English we can and would omit the “that” you still need it in Spanish.”  

“She said that she was tired.”- Here, in English the “that” is optional. This is not the case in Spanish.

“He asked that I go to the store.” (He asked me to go to the store.) – this is one of the examples where the “that” wouldn’t be use in English, but it would in Spanish.

But wait… the questions…

If you’re reporting a question, you have a few options available as they don’t always need the “que”.

Yes and No Questions.

If the answer to the question being reported can be “yes” or “no” you don’t need the “que.” In these situation we would use the “si” like in English (if).

“He asked me if I could go to the store.”- Me preguntó si iba a la tienda.

Questions with question words

If you are reporting a question that contained the question words  (where, who, when, etc.) you will not need the “que” but stick with the question word used in the original context.

  • María: Where is Sara? (¿Dónde está Sara?)

Reported speech: Maria wanted to know where Sara was. (María quería saber donde estaba Sara.)

Let’s get a little more technical.

We’ll try to ease you into all of this grammatical stuff. It seems like a lot to remember. But, a lot of it is very common in English as well, so try to not to get too overwhelmed!

Personal pronouns and Possessive pronouns.

Again, let’s start with an example:

  • María: Can you tell my brother that I need to talk to him? ¿Puedes decirle a mi hermano que le tengo que hablar?

Here, obviously a few things need to change if you want to report this statement. For one, he’s not your brother and for another you’re not the one that needs to speak to him.

In this situation, the personal pronouns (you, I) need to change, as well as the possessive (my). Here’s how this statement would sound when repeating it later on to someone else:

  • Direct speech: Maria asked me, “Can you tell my brother that I need to talk to him?” Maria me pidio, “Puedes () decirle a mi hermano que (yo) le tengo que hablar?
    • The pronouns remain the same.
  • Indirect/ Reported speech: Maria asked me to tell her brother that she needed to talk to him. María me pidió que (yo) le dijera a su hermano que (ella) necesita hablar con el.
    • Here, you can see that the pronouns did change.

So far so good, right? It’s pretty basic stuff up to this point. Just like in English, we need to change the subject and the pronouns.

Time phrases

Obviously, more often than not, if you’re reporting something that happened it’s because the person you’re recounting the event to wasn’t there when it took place–i.e. it was in the past.

So, here’s how you would change around your time phrases so they line up with what you’re saying:

Time used in direct speechTime used in reported speechExample in direct speechExample in reported speech
Hoy (today)Ese día/ Aquel día (that day)Juan dijo, “hoy es mi cumplaños.”- Juan said, “today is my birthday.” Juan dijo que aquel día era su cumpleaños.- Juan said that that day was his birthday.
Ahora (now)Entonces (then)Mis padres me dijeron, “tienes que volver a casa ahora.”- My parents told me, “you have to come home now.”Mis padres me dijeron que tenía que volver entonces.- My parents told me I had to go home then.
Ayer (yesterday)El día anterior (the day before)Martín dijo, “fui a la fiesta ayer.”- Marin said “I went to the party yesterday.”Martín dijo que había ido a la fiesta el día anterior.- Martin said he went to the party the day before.
Mañana (tomorrow)El día siguiente (the next day)Me contó, “iré al trabajo mañana.” He told me ‘’I’ll go to work tomorrow.’’Me dijo que iría al trabajo al día siguiente- He told me he would go to work the next day.
La semana/el mes/ el año que viene (Next week, next month, next year)A la semana siguiente/ Al mes siguiente/ Al año siguiente (the following week/month/year)Clara me dijo ‘’lo haré la semana que viene.’’ Claire said to me ‘’ I’ll do it next week.’’Clara dijo que lo haría a la semana siguiente- Claire said she’d do it the following week.
La semana pasada/el mes pasado/ el año pasado (last week,last month and last year)La semana anterior/el mes anterior/ el año anteriorAna dijo ‘’ le vi el año pasado” Ana said ‘’I saw him last year.’’Ana dijo que le había visto el año anterior- Ana said that she had seen him the previous year.
Hace + period of time (period of time+ago)Hacia+period of time (period of time +before)/ Period of time+ ante Me dijo, “hace seis meses que rompimos.”- She said “we broke up six months ago.”Me dijo que habían roto hacía seis meses.- She told me that they broke up six months ago.
Aquí (here)Ahí/ Allí (there)Jesus me dijo “nací aquí.”- Jesus told me, “I was born here.”Jesus me dijo que había nacido allí.- Jesus told me he was born there.
Este/ Esta (this)Ese/ Esa (that)/ Aquel/ aquella (that)Alejandro dijo, “me gusta mucho este libro.”Alejandro dijo que le gustó mucho ese libro.
Estos/ Estas (these)Eses/ Esas (those)/ Aquellos/ aquellas (those)Me dijo el profesor, “a los niños les encantan estas películas.”- The teacher told me, “the children love these movies.”Me dijo el profesor que a los niños les encantaban esas películas.- The teacher told me that the children loved those movies.

As you’ll notice above, all of the examples are written in the past. This is also something important to pay attention to, and probably one of the most important grammatical points of reported speech. So, let’s go ahead and dive right into that!

Spanish Words and Expressions

Verb tenses in indirect (reported) speech.

The tense the reporting verb is in (present, past, future) will have a big impact on the rest of the sentence.
Not only will you need to pay attention to the tense, but also to what is being said.

Command/Request vs information

Depending on the context of the conversation being reported, you’ll need to use different ways of repeating it.

This is where things can start to get a little tricky. We do have similar rules in English as they do in Spanish, but in English they are a little more flexible, and followed less frequently.

Here are some good rules to keep in mind when using indirect speech in Spanish:

  • If the reporting verb is in the present or present perfect tense you do not need to change the verb tense–unless it’s a command (we’ll talk more about this in a minute).
  • If the reporting verb is in the preterite, imperfect, or the past perfect tense you do need to change the  verb tense.

Let’s look at a quick scenario and see what we have:

Scenario: Let’s say you’re texting with someone, and your friend (who you’re with physically) wants to know what the person texting you is saying.

Person 1: What did he say?

Person 2: He asked if we are free tonight. (reporting information)

1: Why? What does he want?

2: He wants us to help him move. (reporting a request)

Here, we can see that in the first part, Person 2 is simply repeating the information. He asked a question, and this is what it is. The reporting verb “want to know” is in the present, so the second verb is in the present as well.

In the second part of the exchange, the reporting verb is in the present, so in English, we keep the it in the present as well. In Spanish, however, if we are reporting a request or command, we need to use the subjunctive. In this case it will be the present subjunctive because the reporting verb is in present.

In Spanish the conversation would go like this:

Person 1: ¿Qué dijo?”

Person 2: Quiere saber si estamos libres esta noche. (present-present)

1: ¿Por qué? ¿Qué quiere?

2: Quiere que le ayudemos a hacer la mudanza. (present-present subjunctive)

Note: This change to the subjunctive only happens with certain verbs: Decir, Pedir, Querer. An easy way to remember this is if they verb will be followed by “si” or “que.”

  • If it’s followed by “si” you will not use the subjunctive.
    • Quiere saber si podemos salir esta noche. (He wants to know if I can go out tonight.)
    • Me pregunta si quiero quedar mañana. (He’s asking if I can meet up tomorrow.)
    • Again, in this situation you’re not necessarily relaying the request or the command, but merely the information contained in the request itself.
  • When followed by “que” and reporting a request or command:
    • Fernando dice, “Ten cuidad.” (Fernando says, “be careful.”
      • Me dice que tenga cuidado. (He tells me to be careful.)
    • Fernando pide, “¿Me puedes ayudar con los deberes?” (Fernando asks, “Can you help me with my homework?”
      • Frenando me pide que le ayude con los deberes. (Franks asks me to help with the homework.)
    • But NOT: Fernando me dice, “tienes que ir a clase mañana (This is not a command.)
      • Fernando me dice que tengo que ir a clase mañana.

Verb Tense Changes

So, if you feel like all of that has settled into your mind and it’s not going to explode just yet, let’s keep chugging along!

As mentioned above, if the reporting verb is in present, it will only change (to present subjunctive) if the thing being reported is a command/ request.

When the reporting verb is in the past, however, the rest of the information being reported will need to change tense. Here’s how that is going to work:

Present Simple–Imperfect

  • Direct speech: Angela dijo, “No puedo ir.” (Angela said, “I can’t go.”)
  • Indirect/ Reported speech: Angela dijo que no podía ir. (Angela said that she couldn’t go.)

Preterite–Pluscuamperfecto (past perfect)

  • Direct speech: Sergio dijo, “Ayer compré un movil nuevo.”  (Sergio said, “Yesterday I bought a new cell phone.)
  • Indirect/ Reported speech: Sergio dijo que el día anterior había comprado un movil nuevo. (Sergio said that the day before he had bought a new phone.)

Future simple (will)–Conditional simple (would)

  • Direct speech: Candela dijo, “Llegaré tarde.”– (Candela said, “I’ll arrive late.”)
  • Indirect/ Reported speech: Candela dijo que llegaría tarde. – (Candela said that she would arrive late.)

Imperfect/Conditional/Past Perfect

With these, you will not change second verb tense. Yay!

Imperfect:

  • Direct speech: Juan dijo, “la playa era muy bonita.” (Juan said, “the beach was very pretty.”)
  • Indirect/ Reported speech: Juan dijo que la playa era muy bonita. (Juan said that beach was very pretty.)

Conditional:  

  • Direct speech: María dijo, “Me gustaría vivir en Nueva York.” (Maria said, “I would like to live in New York.”
  • Indirect/ Reported speech: María dijo que le gustaría vivir en Nueva York. (Maria said she would like to live in New York.

Past Perfect

  • Direct speech: Mi padre me dijo, “a las 5 ya había llegado.” (My dad told me, “at 5 I had already arrived.”)
  • Indirect/ Reported speech: Mi padre me dijo que a las 5 ya había llegado. (My dad told me that a 5 he had already arrived.)

Just one more thing… I promise!

One last thing to remember, like we saw with the present tense, if the verb in the past is a reporting verb, and what is being reported is a command or request, you will use the subjunctive–past subjunctive this time!

  • Direct speech: Mis padres me dijeron, “vuelve a casa a las 23.00.” (My parents told me, “by home at 11:00pm.)
  • Indirect/ Reported speech: Mis padres me dijeron que volviera a casa a las 23.00. (My parents told me to be home by 11:00 pm.)

¡Madre Mía! That was a lot of information!

Let’s see if we can condense it down just a little bit.

Important rules to remember. If you are using reporting speech:

  • You will not use quotation marks
  • Since you’re not quoting, you don’t need to say word-for-word what the person said
  • When reporting what someone said, you generally change the verb tense.

If you do need to change the verb tense, this is why and when:

  • If the reporting verb is in the present or present perfect tense you do not need to change the verb tense–unless it’s a command.
    • Commands or requests with a present tense reporting verb will take the present subjunctive conjugation in the following verb.
  • If the reporting verb is in the preterite, imperfect, or the past perfect tense you do need to change the verb tense.
    • Again, commands or requests with a past tense reporting verb will need to take the past subjunctive conjugation in the following verb.

If the reporting verb is in the past, these are the changes you’ll make:

  • Present simple–imperfect
  • Preterite-Past Perfect (Pluscuamperfecto)
  • Will future–simple continual (would)

Verbs that will not change the tense of the others verbs:

  • Imperfect
  • Conditional
  • Past Perfect

Things to keep in mind:

  • Remember your reporting verbs
  • Remember to change the personal and possessive pronouns
  • Remember your time phrases

Conclusion

In reality, it’s not as complicated as it looks. It may take a little practice to get used to, but after a while, you’ll find that is relatively similar to what we do in English.

Do you have any shortcuts you use to remember the rules mentioned above? Is reported (indirect) speech something you struggle with? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author Ana

Anastasia is a Chicago, Illinois native. She began studying Spanish over 10 years ago, and hasn’t stopped since. Living in Spain since 2012, she loves Spanish tortilla, vino tinto, and anything that contains jamón ibérico.

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