Modals in Indirect Speech

Modal verbs change when they are used in indirect speech. In this lesson, we will learn about their structure and uses.

Modal Verbs in Indirect Speech

Modals can be used in indirect speech to help us quote a conversation or dialogue for other people.

Using Modal Verbs in Indirect Speech

Modal verbs use backshift when they are used in indirect speech. Backshift refers to the changing of a present tense in direct speech to a past tense in reported speech (or a past tense to a past perfect tense). Here is the backshift of modals on the table:

direct indirect
will would
shall would or should
can could
may might or could
must had to or no change
could no change
should no change
would no change
might no change
ought to no change

Using Will

Will is a modal verb that is used to refer to future action. Here are the changes when it is used in an indirect speech:

direct speech: He said: "I will take a bus to your house."

indirect speech: He said, he would take a bus to my house.

Using Shall

Usually, we use the modal verb shall to talk about making offers or suggestions. When the direct sentence is used to refer to a future event, we should use would in the indirect speech, but when shall is used to make offers or suggestions we use should instead of shall in the indirect speech.

direct speech: He said, "shall I pick you up?" → making offers

indirect speech: He asked if he should pick me up.

direct speech: Marco said: "I shall go home tomorrow." → talking about the future

indirect speech: Marco said he would go home the following day.

backshift: can → could

Using Can

When we use 'can' in direct speech to talk about abilities and possibilities we use could in indirect speech. Here are the examples:

direct speech: They said, "We can bring the wine."

indirect speech: They said they could bring the wine.

Using May

We usually use the modal verb may to talk about possibilities. We can also use may to ask for or give permission. when we use may to talk about possibilities in direct speech, we use might as an alternative in indirect speech. If we use may to ask for permission or give permission then we should use could in indirect speech.

direct speech: Mania said, "I may go to the party now." → talking about possibility

indirect speech: Mania said she might go to the party then.

direct speech: You asked, may I use the bathroom?" → asking for permission

indirect speech: You asked if you could use the bathroom.

Using Must

The modal verb must is used particularly to imply obligation. When we want to show obligation in the indirect speech we can use had to or even must. Here are the examples:

direct speech: He said, "you must take responsibility of your own life."

indirect speech: He said I must/had to take responsibility of my own life.

Review

The only modal verbs that change when they are used in indirect speech are: will, shall, can, may, must. Check the backshifts on the table:

direct indirect
will would
shall would or should
can could
may might or could
must had to or no change

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