Reported speech with modal verbs | Learn English grammar

How should we use reported speech with modal verbs in English? Watch this video lesson to find out more...


In the previous video, we looked at reported speech and reporting what somebody has said from direct speech. We also discussed why this is common and why this is so useful in English! You don't want to just repeat somebody's exact words all the time because it might make you sound like a parrot! Also it would make your English sound quite basic and quite simple, so if you really want your English to sound more sophisticated and more advanced, this is a really good way to do it.

So in the previous video we looked at how we change a direct speech statement into reported speech by changing the verb, by changing the pronoun, by changing the time word and also by dropping the speech marks. Remember, in reported speech we don't use speech marks. In this video we're going to look at how we report direct speech that uses modal verbs.

So remember, we said in the previous video that the verb backshifts when we report direct speech. So that means that the tense goes back; present becomes past, present perfect becomes past perfect, etc. So modal verbs work in the same way, but there are some exceptions as well, so that's why it's important for us to look at a few examples together. So here's a simple example:

"I can't eat seafood". He said he couldn't eat seafood.

So the modal verb here is 'can' in the negative - 'can't'. So 'can' or 'can't' becomes 'could' or 'couldn't' in reported speech.

"I will see you later". She said she would see me later.

Here the modal verb 'will' backshifts to 'would'.

However, if you're reporting 'could' or 'would', you can't backshift them anymore, so you just keep 'could' and 'would' the same, you don't need to change that. So, for example:

"I couldn't speak English when I was a child". He said he couldn't speak English when he was a child.

There are a few other modal verbs in English that also don't change. They are 'could', 'would', 'should', 'might' and 'must', although sometimes when we're reporting 'must', we backshift 'must' to 'had to', but really you could use either, you could use 'must' or 'had to'. So for example:

"You must do your homework". She said I had to do my homework.

But if you want to keep 'must' as 'must', you can do that. That's not a problem.

OK, let's do some practice now! So I will give you some example sentences in direct speech and I want you to convert them into reported speech. All of these examples have modal verbs so in some cases you will need to backshift the modal verb and in some cases you won't change the modal verb. If you need more time to think about your answer or to write it down, then pause the video in between each example.

OK, so that's how we report sentences from direct speech using modal verbs. Watch the video again if you need to make it a bit clearer. It's always easier the second time!

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