Lesson #230 (Part 1): ‘To say’ vs ‘to tell’: What you need to report Direct and Indirect speeches accurately

For the last couple of years, I have been reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch throughout May and June. It has 8 books (or sections) and so I read one book per week, finishing one of the longest books in just 8 weeks! 📆

It is a marvellous work, and has in fact been described as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’ (Virginia Woolf) and ‘a treasure-house of detail’ (Henry James).

📘 Middlemarch is a complex, analytical study of an entire community of people living in rural England around 1828-1832. As such, the many characters interact and talk with one another. Sometimes their speeches are quoted directly (e.g., ‘ “Oh, what sad words!” said Dorothea’) and at other times these are reported using indirect speech through another character or even the narrator (e.g., ‘ “I have told her that there is no need for haste –”  ’)

Being fresh in my mind and full of many characters’ voices, I would like to draw on Middlemarch for our Lesson on direct and indirect speech. We will cover the basic points you need to know on this topic:

  • ✏️ What are the main differences between direct and indirect speech
  • ✏️ How to use the verbs ‘to say’ and ‘to tell’ in these two kinds of speech
  • ✏️ What tenses you need to conjugate verbs to when you change sentences from direct to indirect speech

And as a bonus, I am including five common English expressions using ‘to say’ that feature often in Middlemarch. ✏️

So even though this Lesson is long, I encourage you to stay till the end!


✍️ Direct speech basically means the exact words that someone says. When written down, these are clearly marked by quotation marks (double quotation marks in American English and single quotation marks in British English). For example (using British quotation marks in these examples):

📘 ‘There, Celia! you can wear that with your Indian muslin. But this cross [necklace] you must wear with your dark dresses.’

‘Oh [Dorothea], you must keep the cross yourself.’

‘No, no, dear, no …’

‘Yes, indeed you must; it would suit you–in your black dress, now. You might wear that.’

‘Not for the world, not for the world. A cross is the last thing I would wear as a trinket.’

‘Then you will think it wicked in me to wear it …’

‘No, dear, no. Souls have complexions too: what will suit one will not suit another.’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (edited version of Eliot’s original text)

If we want to change this from direct speech to reported or indirect speech, we need to add two things:

✍️ 1) the verb ‘to say’ or ‘to tell’, and

✍️ 2) the proper name (or personal pronoun) to show who did the speaking: e.g., ‘No, dear, no,’ said Dorothea, stroking her sister’s cheek. ‘Souls have complexions too: what will suit one will not suit another.’ (from George Eliot, Middlemarch – emphases mine)


✍️ Indirect speech – also known as reported speech – is a speech that has been made at some point in the past and is being retold by someone. It does not use quotation marks.

Here are some examples:

📘 ‘Tantripp told her that he had read prayers, breakfasted, and was in the library.’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)

📘 ‘He had told her of Dorothea’s letter …’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)

📘 ‘The courier had told him that only Mrs Casaubon was at home …’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)

👉 As you will notice from these examples, we generally prefer to use the verb ‘to tell’ when we are speaking or writing indirect speech. But you can use ‘to say’ in some cases:

📘 ‘ “I think Fred ought not to need telling again what I have already said to him …” ’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)


We have just noted that we often use the verb ‘to say’ to report direct speech:

📘 ‘No, no, dear, no,’ said Dorothea, putting up her hand with careless deprecation.

‘Yes, indeed you must; it would suit you–in your black dress, now,’ said Celia, insistingly. ‘You might wear that.’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphases mine)


👉 But could we substitute ‘tell’ for ‘say’ in these sentences? No, not without making some changes to the sentence’s grammar.

Why is this so, if ‘to say’ and ‘to tell’ are synonymous?

✍️ The difference between these two verbs is that ‘to say’ describes the sounds/words that came out of a person’s mouth, whereas ‘to tell’ emphasises the message that was communicated (to someone).

To say’ is an ‘intransitive verb’ (in this type of context), whereas ‘to tell’ is a ‘transitive verb’ (meaning that it requires a direct object – the message that has been told). ✍️

So when we want to use the verb ‘to tell’, we also need to follow it with a proper noun (e.g. a name) or a personal pronoun (me, you, him, her, us, you, them) to show who has received the message (the indirect object).

For example, in the quotation above we might exchange ‘tell’ for ‘said’ like this:

✒️ ‘No, no, dear, no,’ Dorothea told her sister, putting up her hand with careless deprecation. [my paraphrase of Eliot’s original line]

Note: This said, George Eliot chose the best word in this context (‘said’ rather than ‘told [someone’) because Dorothea was not delivering a message (what ‘to tell’ generally implies) but was simply speaking the words (what ‘to say’ means).


On the other hand, you might be wondering, ‘Can we similarly use the verb ‘to say’ – like ‘to tell’ – to express that a message was given?’

In other words, can we change ‘to say’ from an intransitive verb to a transitive verb?

Yes, but we then need to add ‘to [INDIRECT OBJECT]’ after ‘to say’. For example:

📘 ‘He had simply said to Dorothea— “To be sure, I will write, my dear. … However, I will tell him about Casaubon.” ’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphases mine)


📘 ‘The long and short of it is, somebody [SUBJECT] has told [VERB] old Featherstone [INDIRECT OBJECT] … that Fred has been borrowing or trying to borrow money on the prospect of his land [DIRECT OBJECT].’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphases and notations my own)

👉 You will notice that there are no quotation marks at all surrounding the message spoken to Old Featherstone. This is because the speech is being reported after it took place and so, together with details about the conversation’s background, it becomes a statement describing what was said, rather than a live conversation.

So for example, if we wanted to change the quotation above from indirect to direct speech, it would look something like this:

✒️ He [somebody] said to Old Featherstone, ‘Fred has been borrowing or trying to borrow money on the prospect of your land.’ [my paraphrase of Eliot’s original line]

✍️ If you want to change a reported or indirect speech into a direct speech, like we have just done, you need to be aware of the following changes:

  • We need to change the tense (‘said’ [past simple tense] of direct speech becomes ‘has told’ [present perfect’] in indirect/reported speech speech)
  • We need to change any personal pronoun or particular detail (‘your land’ of the direct speech example becomes ‘his land’ in the indirect speech; your ‘here’ might become his/her ‘there’)
  • While ‘direct speech’ quotes the exact words a person spoke, we might need to addthatin an indirect speech for clarity: e.g., ‘he told old Featherstone that Fred …’

Note: We also may need to change the word order. For example, a question in direct speech like follows:

📘 ‘ “Fond of him, Celia! How can you choose such odious expressions?” said Dorothea, passionately.’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch

If we wanted to rephrase this (either orally or in writing) as an indirect reported speech, we might express it as follows:

✒️ Dorothea asked her sister Celia how she could choose such odious expressions. [my paraphrase of Eliot’s original line]

👉 In the (direct speech) question, the words are ordered as ‘how can you choose..?’ just like any other question in English, with the verb preceding the subject.

👉 However, when we report a question in indirect/reported speech, we actually change it into a statement, so that the word order reflects that of a normal statement: ‘… she could choose’. We also remove the question mark from the end because it has now become a statement.

In Part 2 of this Lesson (see next post), we will look at the rules for changing the tenses when we report a speech, as well as some useful English expressions using ‘to say’ as found in Middlemarch.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)