Reporting speech

As a journalist, the job you will find yourself doing most often is reporting what people say. There are two basic ways of doing it …..

Direct speech

This means that you report the exact words of the speaker and you signal this to the reader by putting the words between quotation marks. By using quotation marks, you are giving the reader an undertaking that you have not changed anything – they are the exact words the speaker used.

Using direct speech, there are two styles you can use:

Style 1 – the full-sentence

This style is used when the speaker’s sentence is so striking that you want to record the complete sentence or paragraph.

For example:

The mayor said: “I am suspending the meeting until members have calmed down.”

With this style, there are seven rules that have to be followed strictly:

1. The quote is introduced by said or added. Don’t search for elegant variations such as demanded, opined, queried. You may have been encouraged to use long words as a vocabulary-widening exercise years ago, but journalists try to keep things simple.
2. The word said is followed by a colon. Again, you may have been taught to use a comma, and many books use commas, but please follow newspaper style.
3. The quote itself is opened by double quote marks in the form of a number 66.
4. The first word of the quote is in capital letters.
5. The quote (when introduced by a said or added) must be a complete sentence.
6. It is followed by a full stop, before the final quote marks.
7. The final quote marks are in the form of a 99.

Style 2 – the vivid phrase

The second style for reporting speech directly is used when the sentence as a whole is not worth recording word-for-word, but a phrase of it is particularly striking. For example, suppose in his final address to the jury a defence counsel said:

My learned friend Mr Brown has raised doubts about the defendant’s alibi, as he is entitled to, but I invite you to consider the defendant’s outstanding war record of courage and self-sacrifice.

A journalist might report it like this:

Miss Jane Smith, defending, said the prosecution had questioned Sykes’s alibi, but he had an “outstanding war record of courage and self-sacrifice”.

In this method of using a direct quote, the phrase quoted is put between quote marks in a slightly different way. There are three new rules here:

1. The final quote marks come before the full stop.
2. The quoted phrase is not introduced by a colon or any other form of
punctuation – apart from the quote marks.
3. It is not introduced by a capital letter.

Single quote marks

Many people think – wrongly – that any short quotation should have single quote marks. In fact, single marks are used only for quotations within other quotations. For example:

The report adds: “We should adopt the American ‘three strikes and you’re out’ system.”

You may have noticed that some newspapers reverse the normal rule for double and single quotation marks. The Daily Mail and the Observer, for example, use single quote marks as the norm and double marks for quotes-within-quotes. Their aim in reversing the traditional style is probably to produce a less cluttered effect.

This illustrates that in many areas there is no official right way or wrong way – except that the way your editor wants it is always the right way!

All newspapers use single quote marks in headlines. Double quotes in headlines are the giveaway sign of the amateur journalist.

Indirect speech

The second method of reporting what people say is to use indirect speech, sometimes known as reported speech. This is the most common method today, because newspapers no longer have the space to report speeches in full. And their readers don’t have the time to wade through them. Reporters therefore need to know how to translate direct speech to indirect speech. Look at the following examples….

This sentence is written in direct speech:

Councillor Bloggs said: “I hope you will support me in this resolution.”

This sentence is written in indirect speech:

Councillor Bloggs said he hoped they would support him in that resolution.

Notice how words have to change in the translation:















These changes happen because the sentence is no longer being said directly by the speaker – you are reporting it on his behalf, so you have to do it impersonally, from a position outside the situation. In English we do this by changing certain pronouns and by changing the tense of the verbs one stage back into the past. The tense of a verb is the form it takes to indicate whether the action takes place in the past, the present or the future.

Here’s a table to help you:




he or she


he, she, they or them


him or her


















that day


the next day


the previous day

In making these changes, you also change the language to conform to the style of the newspaper. If you want to keep a particularly vivid phrase, put it within quotation marks, following the rules in the court case example given above.

By doing this you indicate to the reader that this part of your report is a direct quote from the speaker. This sometimes has the useful function of distancing you from that particular phrase. You are saying, on behalf of your paper, that these are not necessarily the words you would have chosen.

For example:

The officer told the court that Sykes told him to “bugger off”.

Imagine that in your newspaper without the quotation marks!

As with most rules of English, the language is changing all the time. But in translating from direct to indirect speech there is a special reason for doing it in the formal way as described above.

The changes make it is clear that you are reporting the speaker’s words, and not injecting some comment of your own.

For example, suppose a report states:

The mayor said he was going to close the meeting so that members could calm down. He would reconvene the council after 10 minutes. Members have often behaved in a disorderly way.

Is the final sentence part of the mayor’s remarks, or has the reporter added a comment of his/her own? If it was the mayor’s sentence, the have should have been changed to had. If it wasn’t, it shouldn’t have been in the paper!