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Reported Speech and the 'Historic Present' Tense

everyday grammar
everyday grammar
Reported Speech and the "Historic Present" Tense
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The 2008 film, The Dark Knight, tells the story of Batman, a fictional superhero. At one point in the movie, Batman's enemy, the Joker, says the following lines:

My father was a drinker and a fiend. And one night, he goes off crazier than usual He turns to me, and he says: 'Why so serious?'

Today's report is not about violent stories. Nor is it about superheroes. Instead, it is about reported speech.

You will learn how Americans report speech in everyday situations. You will learn about different verb tenses speakers use to report speech.

So, what is the link between the Joker's lines and reported speech? We will tell you, but first we must give you some definitions.

Reported Speech

In everyday speech, speakers often report what others say.

They quote what other people told them, or they repeat what they said themselves. This is known as direct speech.

The verb say is often used to report direct speech in conversation, note Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber, two English grammar experts.

Here is an example:

"I called the mechanic and said I was ready to come pick up my car – a white convertible, and he said, "Oh, sorry, somebody already picked it up," and I said, "Excuse me, who did you give my car to?"

In the example, the speaker used the verb say in the past tense just before the speech that he was reporting. This is a conversational, informal way of reporting what a person said.

You can imagine that the speaker is a little angry about this story – his car seems to have disappeared!

"Historic present tense"

Direct speech makes a story more exciting. To make the story even more interesting, some speakers use the quoting verb in the "historic present" tense. This means that a present tense verb is used to refer to past time.

Here is an example:

"He was sitting there drinking his coffee, and he says what is this? It was a tooth! "

In the example, the speaker uses the present tense – she said says instead of said. This is the "historic present tense." Speakers use this form because it makes the story sound more immediate, more exciting, and less formal.

You heard an example of the "historic present" at the beginning of this report.

The Joker had already shown that he was talking about the past when he said, "My father was a drinker and a fiend."

Then, he changes to the "historic present" tense: "He turns to me, and he says: 'Why so serious?"

The good news about the so-called "historic present" is this: you do not need to use it. You should not use it in writing, and you should probably not use it in speaking, either.

However, it can be useful to understand it. Native speakers might use it in conversation – and when they do, you will understand what they mean.

Other common verbs or expressions used to report something

In everyday, informal speech, Americans often use other verbs and expressions to report direct speech. Some of these verbs and expressions have the same meaning as say.

The most common of these is probably the verb go. Often used in the simple present tense, the verb go is used commonly by young people, although older people use it too.

Here's an example:

I asked him why he didn't call me back, and he goes, "Well, I didn't get your message."

Here, the verb go is taking the place of the verb say. The speaker could have said "and he said, "Well, I didn't get your message."

Americans also use the expression be like to replace the verb say.

Be like is commonly used among young adults, but many older people also use it. This structure is primarily used among friends. Consider this example:

I'm like are you from Washington, D.C.? and she's like yeah, how did you know?

Be like can also be used to report thoughts, rather than speech. When speakers use be like in this manner, it takes on the meaning of "to be thinking (something)."

What can you do?

The next time you are watching television or talking to an American, try to listen for examples of reported speech. Does the speaker report speech using the verb say, or does he or she choose a different word or expression?

Ask yourself if the speaker is using the "historic present" tense to add excitement to the story.

With time, and with practice, you will learn how Americans report speech. You might even be able to report speech in a similar manner.

However, one warning: do not try to use the historic present tense – if you use it incorrectly, you might confuse others!

We did not talk about formal reported speech today. If you would like to learn more about formal reported speech, please read our previous Everyday Grammar story, "They Say That Reported Speech Is Easy." You can find it on our website,

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Alice Bryant.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

superhero – n. a fictional character who has amazing powers (such as the ability to fly)

fiend – n. a very evil or cruel person

tense – n. grammar : a form of a verb that is used to show when an action happened

informal – adj. having a friendly and relaxed quality

quote –v. to write or say the exact words of (someone)

practice –n. the activity of doing something again and again in order to become better at it

confuse – v. to make (someone) uncertain or unable to understand something