Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

“Sod off, Reported Speech!” she exclaimed.

I’ve spent the past two weeks in turns delighting and dismaying my FCE students with Reported Speech.

God, I loathe Reported Speech.

It’s everything I hate about everything all backshifted into one pointless morass. It’s prawns, brussel sprouts, hashtags, people who talk about themselves in the third person, carrot jeans, touching people I don’t know and Croc footwear.

It’s completely feckin’ made up. Reported Speech barely exists and barely matters when it does.

In class, I keep forgetting to backshift, particularly between past simple and past perfect when we’re doing endless FCE sentence transformation tasks because it just doesn’t bloody matter. Meaning my Native Speaker correct-because-I’d-say-it sentence is textbook wrong, confusing the students and confusing me as I try to “correct” my speech, so as not to sound natural but to fit the book.


At first students love RP. There are rules, logic (once you get past the fact there’s no real need for it), there’s a table you can copy. They start to lose faith in me when I can’t manage the exercises but that only serves to make them feel better about their own English.

Then we hit reporting verbs and the little light fades from their eyes.

They can no longer get away with doing meaningless transforming of sentences they don’t understand and have to deal with content-ful, lexical items. They hate that. And, to make it worse, there are too many possible answers.

Direct Speech:

Why don’t we abandon Reported Speech forever in all course books?


She suggested abandoning Reported Speech forever in all course books.


But what about “She suggested that we abandon Reported Speech in all course books.”?


Yes, that’s right too.

– What about “She suggested to me that we abandon Reported Speech forever in all course books”?

Yes, you could do that but there’s no real point having so many words in the sentence.

– OK, “She suggested me that we abandon Reported Speech forever in all course books.”

Well…no, that extra word has to stay in.

It came into my reach recently to change things. I have finally reached the stage of making an impact on materials even just on a really teeny, tiny, three retweets basis.

I have a Speaking Skills self study book with Harper Collins for B2 and higher for which I got to set my own syllabus with 20 units of whatever I wanted. Of course there was a huge amount of compromise but that’s OK, I’m good at that.

But one I had to lose a lot of ground over was the attack I planned on the flanks of Reported Speech’s cavalry. I believe we mostly report speech in quotes.

  • And I was like….
  • And she went…
  • And I was all…

Since the aim of the book was natural speech, this fit perfectly. My working title for the unit was Reporting Conversations which ultimately became Gossiping. I had to fight for that because there there was no way I was calling it Reported Speech or anything close. No human alive does that. We talk about people, we gossip. But there were concerns that gossip had a negative connotation and maybe we might call it the much catchier Chatting about friends and responding to news.

I think it’s the content of gossip that makes it mean spirited and anyway, so what? We all do it. Most of us enjoy it and, without it, there’d be 70% less conversation in the entire speaking world. Why do we have to pretend our students only want to learn nice things? How about a chapter on Being Bitchy and Slagging People Off? That page would get studied so much the ink would wear off (the non digital version).

  • Did you see what she was wearing?
  • Yes, but then he would say that, wouldn’t he?
  • She’s way too good for him.
  • Someone forgot to look in the mirror this morning.
  • You know me, I don’t like to [gossip] but…

But I can compromise so I nicey-ed up some of the conversations and we kept the title. The bigger battle was to keep my direct quote phrases as a teachable point.

No-one believed in them except me.

The editors felt they were just a way of speaking that didn’t really mean anything and would date. But I know I was talking like that over ten years ago and, if anything, that kind of speech is more prevalent in people ten years younger than me. At the cost of sounding intelligent sometimes but that could have been a point of note  to focus on too; sounding as thick or as intelligent as you wish to appear in your second language.

As it was, I got to keep one teeny little language note about it. I suppose that was something and I think the conversations they appear in sound reasonably natural as a result.












19 comments on ““Sod off, Reported Speech!” she exclaimed.

  1. eflfocus
    March 27, 2014

    I agree and support your rant. As a matter of fact, the current lesson plan I am writing has a “gossip” section in it.

    • Nicola
      March 27, 2014

      Excellent work! I felt much better after that explosion. Good luck with the class. Going to post the lesson plan?

      • eflfocus
        March 27, 2014

        Eventually. I hate the instructions. I think I am the worst instruction writer in the world.

  2. Nick Robinson
    March 27, 2014
  3. Nicola
    March 27, 2014
  4. Elizabeta Milosevski
    March 27, 2014

    Nicola, I simply love your posts! This one made me laugh so hard! I hope you won’t mind my “borrowing” the gossip-centered approach to teaching Reported Speech? 😀 Thanks a million!

    • Nicola
      March 27, 2014

      THANK YOU! That warms my heart – I LOVE blogging! 🙂 Actually if you see in the comments, Paul Walsh wrote a much more useful post with actual practical stuff to do in class so I will just remain happy that you were entertained by mine!

    March 28, 2014

    Great post :-))

    • Nicola
      March 28, 2014

      Just for a split second Steve, just for a split second there I was grrr… Then I realised it was you!

        March 30, 2014

        At least it was only a mini grrrr-attack!

  6. bealer81
    October 15, 2015
  7. Russ
    October 15, 2015

    25 year old article so I don’t think it would date

    • Nicola
      October 15, 2015

      Brilliant! I must research stuff when I want to argue a point!

  8. davedodgson
    October 15, 2015

    Plus, with gossip you come across non-past forms of reporting verbs, which throws the whole ‘back-shifting’ thing into confusion (“Well, I’ve heard… We’ve been told… Someone’s been saying… Everybody’s wondering….”)

    I wonder how this would be taught without grammar-based exams in existence….

    • Nicola
      October 18, 2015

      That’s an excellent point!

  9. eflnotes
    October 15, 2015

    hi here’s another link with some good (corpus -based) recommendations and even lesson units


  10. Nicola
    October 16, 2015

    I knew I was right! If there’s a second edition of that book that chapter can have a rewrite that’ll make it look much more as I originally envisioned.

  11. Ken
    October 26, 2015

    Nicola, on the DELTA Publishing website, there’s a sample download of the chapter on reported speech from the publication mentioned earlier (‘A Handbook of Spoken Grammar’):

    Best, Ken

    • Nicola
      October 26, 2015

      How refreshing!! AND, even more impressive — an EFL book with a pretty good joke illustrating the grammar point. I can’t fault that chapter. Credit to the author and editor!

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