Reporting Verbs in English Grammar

Sentence Structure

Reporters TalkingWhen we repeat what someone has said before, we usually use say or tell:

Jeff said he was never going to eat meat again after that meal!

Susan told us the most amusing story about the pigeons in her garden.

And with direct speech we almost always use say:

“No,” said Jeff, “I can’t face another hamburger.”

“In the end my clothes were all ruined,” said Susan.

So say and tell are known as Reporting Verbs, they report what someone has said.

For EL students it’s perfectly fine to use these two verbs when they report what someone has said before. And in the majority of cases there’s no need to use a different word or try to find an alternative.

Alternative Reporting Verbs

However, sometimes it’s good to use a different word which can give a nuance to what is being said; say and tell are fairly neutral but compare them to some other reporting verbs which add a little more to what is being said:

Bob said you should love the life you live, and live the life you love.

Bob told me that we need to wake up and live.

“When it hits, you feel no pain,” sang Bob.

“I know I’m not perfect!” screamed Bob.

Bob admitted that you have to be someone.

Bob explained that you shouldn’t worry about a thing.

“Smile when she makes you happy,” remarked Bob.

Each one of these adds a different flavor to how something has been reported. There are many reporting verbs to use and they have slightly different patterns depending on which one we use.

say & tell Usual Patterns

say

With say we usually use this pattern with that being optional:

{subject} + (say) + [that]

He said that today was Tuesday.
She said she was hungry.

In direct speech this is usually:

{subject} + (say) + quote

Bob said, “Make sure your hands are clean.”

or

“quote” + (say) + {subject}

“Make sure your hands are clean,” said Bob.

tell

With tell this is the usual pattern and note that it includes another person in it, the person who is being told:

{subject} + (tell) + {person} + [that] + {clause}

He told me that it was time to leave,
She told them they were making too much noise.

If we are talking about what is being told, we use this pattern and it’s not necessary to have a second person:

{subject} + (tell) + [person] + {object}

She told me a joke.
She told a joke.

Other Verbs & Patterns

But of course, say and tell aren’t the only two options here and there are other patterns. Here are the most common (and note that there are plenty more verbs for each pattern, these are just examples):

{verb} + {full infinitive}

The children promised to go to bed early.
She refused to accept his offer.

{verb} + {person} + {full infinitive}

We encouraged them to file a complaint.
The guard warned us to leave.

{verb} + {gerund}

She denied visiting her ex!
I suggested stopping for a cup of coffee.

{verb} + {person} + {preposition} + {gerund}

He accused her of lying.
They blamed me for making a mess.

{verb} + {preposition} + {gerund}

I apologize for upsetting you.
They insisted on paying for the damage.

{verb} + [that] + {subject} + {verb}

She admitted that she was wrong.
I explained he was drunk at the time.

Reporting Patterns & TEFL

Do you need to drill your class on these patterns and which verb goes with which?

The answer is, no. There are exceptions; some reporting verbs will go with more than one pattern and these are only general rules anyway.

As a TEFL teacher you just need to be aware that there are different patterns and when they arise in class simply explain how that particular reporting verb is used and make sure your class understand. This means you won’t overload your students with information they will hardly ever use or barely need to know.

Useful Links

Indirect/Reported Speech‏‎ in English – a general look at reported speech

Direct Speech‏‎ in English – a look at quoted speech

Punctuating Direct Speech‏‎ – how to punctuate direct (quoted) speech

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