Lesson #230 (Part 2): ‘To say’ vs ‘to tell’: What you need to report Direct and Indirect speeches accurately

This Lesson post builds on what was covered in Part 1, so if you missed it why not quickly review our basic outline of

✏️ 1) what direct and indirect speeches are,

✏️ 2) the main differences between them, and

✏️ 3) how to correctly use the verbs ‘to say’ and ‘to tell’ in those contexts.

We will look here in Part 2 at

✏️ 4) the conditions for changing tenses when reporting a speech, followed by

✏️ 5) five important expressions in English – and in Middlemarch – that you should know.

📝 THE RULES FOR CHANGING TENSES:

✍️ Basically whenever we report a speech, we report it in a tense that is one step further in the past than what it was when it was spoken. ✍️

For example:

✒️ She said, ‘I am going to town.’ [Notice the present tense of ‘I am going …’]

This, when reported as indirect speech, changes into the past simple tense:

✒️ She said that she was going to town.

Here is another example, from Middlemarch this time, of how we change a speech from one register to another:

📘 ‘In short, I have promised to speak to you, though I told him I thought there was not much chance.’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)

Direct speech:

✒️ Mr Brooke said to him, ‘… I think there is not much chance.’ [Notice the present tense in the direct speech. Side note: this is my paraphrased version of Eliot’s original words]

Indirect / reported speech:

📘 ‘… I told him I thought there was not much chance.’ [Present tense becomes past tense when reported]

✍️ This general transformation applies to all these tenses:

  • Present simple becomes past simple in reported speech
  • Present continuous becomes past continuous in reported speech
  • Present perfect becomes past perfect in reported speech
  • Present perfect continuous becomes past perfect continuous in reported speech
  • Past simple becomes past perfect in reported speech
  • Past continuous becomes past perfect continuous in reported speech
  • Past perfect stays the same
  • Past perfect continuous stays the same
  • Future simple becomes would in reported speech
  • Future continuous becomes would in reported speech
  • Future perfect becomes would in reported speech
  • Future perfect continuous becomes would in reported speech

✍️ Statements using modal verbs also have their own changes:

  • Will becomes would in reported speech
  • Can becomes could in reported speech
  • May (as indicating possibility) becomes might in reported speech
  • May (as expressing permission) becomes could in reported speech
  • Must (as expressing obligation) becomes had to in reported speech
  • Must (as expressing speculation) stays the same as must in reported speech
  • Could remains the same in direct and reported speech
  • Should remains the same in direct and reported speech
  • Would remains the same in direct and reported speech
  • Might remains the same in direct and reported speech

✍️ As for imperative commands, when they are reported, they follow this framework: ‘tell / say to + personal pronoun + to + root verb’.

📘 ‘[Dr Lydgate] told her to go home and rest …’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)

📝 3 EXCEPTIONS – IN WHICH THE TENSES DO NOT CHANGE

There are only 3 exceptions to the ‘change the tenses’ principle mentioned above, all of which are easy to remember if you can understand the logic behind them:

✍️ 1) The tense doesn’t change when a verb refers to an ongoing action that continues unchanged between the time that the speech was made and the time that the speech is being retold:

E.g. Direct speech: ‘She is still living with her parents.’

This can become, as an indirect speech: ‘She said that she is still living with her parents.’

The action of ‘living with her parents’ here is ongoing, so its tense stays the same in both kinds of speech.

✍️ 2) The tense doesn’t change when a verb refers to a repetitive action that continues between the time that the speech was made and the time that the speech is being retold. For example,

📘 ‘[Mary] says she will never have me if I go into the Church; and I shall be the most miserable devil in the world if I lose all hope of Mary.’

– the words of Fred Vincy in Middlemarch, by George Eliot

✒️ Here Mary has said to Fred something like, ‘I will never have you if you go into the Church [that is, become a church minister]’, and she has said it many times to Fred, which is why we don’t write ‘Mary said she will never have me …’ but ‘Mary says she will never have me …’

N. B. If the sentence had been, ‘Mary said she will never have me …’, it would show that Mary had made that statement to Fred only once in the past. The simple past tense generally indicates one statement made once.

✍️ 3) Similarly, you can keep the tense the same in both cases if an action or plan hasn’t yet taken place after the speech has been reported. For example:

Direct speech: ‘I will be studying in the UK next year.’

Indirect speech: ‘She said that she will be studying in the UK next year.’

The act of ‘studying … next year’ hasn’t yet happened in the present moment, so the tenses can stay the same.

📝 5 ENGLISH EXPRESSIONS USING ‘TO SAY’ FOUND IN ‘MIDDLEMARCH’

Now that we have covered the grammatical points, let’s look at five common English expressions that are scattered widely throughout Middlemarch, perhaps more so than they do in other classics.

I am sure that after this Lesson, you will notice how often and ubiquitous (widespread, common, found everywhere) these short phrases are!

🔑 ‘TO SAY TO ONESELF’

You may have come across expressions along the lines of ‘to say to oneself’:

📘 ‘Dorothea said to herself that Mr Casaubon was the most interesting man she had ever seen …’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)

📘 ‘Away from her sister, Celia talked quite easily, and Sir James said to himself that the second Miss Brooke was certainly very agreeable as well as pretty, though not, as some people pretended, more clever and sensible than the elder sister.’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)

‘To say to oneself’ means to ‘think’ or to ‘say inwardly [without expressing it in words to others]’.

So in the first quotation here Dorothea is thinking that Mr Casaubon is the most interesting man she had ever seen, and in the second quotation Sir James is thinking that the second Miss Brooke is certainly very agreeable as well as pretty.

🔑 ‘IS SAID TO BE’ / ‘WAS SAID TO BE’

This is a short phrase that appears regularly in Middlemarch. It is a common expression in English that means ‘people had said [something] to be the case [about someone]’. Take this from Middlemarch, for example:

📘 ‘His name is Ladislaw. He is said to be of foreign extraction.’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)

This simply means that people in general said that Ladislaw was ‘of foreign extraction’ or foreign.

🔑 ‘ROSAMOND SAID …’ VS ‘SAID ROSAMOND’

📘 ‘Poor Rosy!’ said Lydgate, putting out his hand to her as she was passing him. ‘Disputation is not amusing to cherubs. Have some music. Ask Ladislaw to sing with you.’

When Will was gone Rosamond said to her husband, ‘What put you out of temper this evening, Tertius?’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphases mine)

Are you unsure of how to order words when you would like to write or say ‘he said’ / ‘said he’?

✍️ Put simply, when we are describing a dialogue, especially in a story, writers will often write ‘said he/she/they/[proper name of speaker] etc’ just to indicate the speaker.

✍️ But if we want to describe the action of speaking to impart (give) information, we usually reverse the word order: e.g., ‘Rosamond said to her husband’ or ‘Rosamond told her husband’.

N.B. Remember that we need to add a ‘to’ after ‘say’ in indirect speech:

– say to (someone)

– tell (someone)

🔑 ‘I SAY …’

This is an expression that means ‘I suggest’ in some contexts; in others it is simply an exclamation that emphasises the speaker’s opinion:

📘 ‘I say, you must contradict this story.’

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)

This could be interpreted as meaning ‘I suggest that you contradict this story’ or ‘In my opinion / I want to emphasise, you must contradict this story.’

🔑 ‘I DARE SAY …’

This expression was very common in British English in the 1800s, but can still be heard nowadays from time to time (occasionally). It is used when you want to say that something is very likely:

📘 ‘I dare say Dodo likes it: she is fond of melancholy things and ugly people.’ [Its meaning: ‘I am very sure that Dodo likes it …’]

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)

📘 ‘He’s a very clever young fellow – this young Ladislaw – I dare say will be a rising young man.’ [Its meaning: ‘I am certain that [this young Ladislaw] will be a rising young man’]

– George Eliot, Middlemarch (emphasis mine)

……………………..

As always, I hope very much that this Lesson has been helpful. If you ever need a private lesson or two to help you practice and strengthen what we have covered today, you can always ask me through this form.

Meanwhile, I am certain that if you keep listening to English speakers’ conversations, you will hear some of these 5 expressions using ‘say’ in English. Hopefully you will use them yourself someday! 😊