Studies of grammar in prose

Reported speech in Chinese

17 February 2016

This is a short study of reported speech in Chinese in actual use, with reference to a popular piece on the Internet. Following The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, I use the term 'reported speech' to cover both direct and indirect quotations.

1. Reported speech in English
2. Reported speech in Chinese
3. Examples from online piece
4. Comment

First, reported speech in English.

1. Reported Speech in English

Written English makes a clear distinction between direct speech and indirect speech. Although the distinction is found in both written and spoken English, it is most rigorously maintained in the written language; the spoken language is more fluid.

Direct speech is (or at least purports to be) an exact reproduction of the words of the speaker. Direct speech is inserted in the sentence as an independent element, acting like an island isolated from the grammar of the rest of the sentence. In the written language it is customarily enclosed in quotation marks (inverted commas) to set it apart:

In a more formal style, the description of the act of speaking may be placed after the reported speech:

It should be noted, however, that the convention that direct speech should quote a speaker verbatim in written English is of a prescriptive nature and does not necessarily represent language as it is actually used. It is the use of quotation marks that serves to indicate verbatim quotation, which can be found in any grammatical context, not merely direct speech.

In everyday spoken English, the use of direct speech is certainly no guarantee that words are being quoted accurately. Often the effect of using direct speech in a format like "He said, then I said" (or "He goes, then I go", or "He's like, and I'm like") is to add animation to the narrative, possibly with an element of mimicking or distortion.

Indirect speech incorporates the reported content into the overall grammar of the sentence. It uses several devices to do so:

For example, our sentence above might become:

This assumes that the speaker came to the present location ('here') on a day which the speaker identified as 'yesterday' but must be converted to 'the day before' within the larger narrative frame. Note also that 'went' is changed to 'had been', although 'had come' is also possible. These changes will depend on the larger narrative frame, that is, when and where the speech is being quoted. (For the written language, 'the present' is generally the time of writing rather than the time of reading.)

2. Reported Speech in Chinese

reported speech

In Chinese, the distinction between direct and indirect speech is fuzzier.

For direct speech, modern written Chinese, under the influence of foreign models, does enclose such speech in quotation marks. However, this appears to be less well entrenched than in English.

For indirect speech, referring to the features found in English above:

Due to these differences, pronoun usage will frequently be the only indicator in Chinese as to whether speech is direct or indirect.

3. Actual Examples from Online Piece

These characteristics are well represented in a recent piece extensively distributed on the Internet. The piece is 低调是真正的奢华 (dīdiào shi zhēnzhèng de shēhuá 'True extravagance is being low key'), attributed to Ren Fengnan (任风南). It has a number of examples of reported speech seamlessly woven into the narrative, switching fluidly between direct and indirect speech.

The following are examples drawn from the text of the article (shown here), not necessarily listed in order. Note the use of pronouns.


The subject of the sentence is third person (他 'he'), referring to 小朋友 xiǎo-péngyou 'young friend'. 他 is repeated in the reported speech (他说... tā shuō ... 'he says he...'). There is no comma between the main sentence and reported speech.

As DIRECT SPEECH, the sentence would be:

The speaker would have used 我 'I' when speaking about himself.


The subject of the sentence is 第一个朋友 dì-yíge péngyou 'my first friend', omitted but understood. No pronoun occurs in the reported speech. If it were expressed, it would be 我们 wǒmen 'we' or 咱 zán 'we', whether in direct or indirect speech.

This is INDETERMINATE as there is no way in this sentence of formally distinguishing between INDIRECT and DIRECT speech.


The subject of the main sentence is third person (朋友 péngyou 'friend'). In the reported speech, (你 ) is the pronoun that would have been used in actual speech.

As INDIRECT speech, the pronoun would be second person (他 ):

Aside from these simple examples, the passage also contains a number of extended quotations, as covered below.


The narrative uses first-person (我曾跟小朋友说过 wǒ céng gēn xiǎo péngyou shuōguo 'I had said to my young friend').

a) The subject of the first sentence of reported speech, omitted because it is understood, is also 我 'I':

The narrator does not directly quote what he actually said. Instead of 你 'you', which is what he would have used in speaking to his young friend, he uses 他 'he'. However, 他 'he' is spelt out just once in the entire quotation. In all other places, the pronoun is dropped.

介绍 ... 认识 jièshao... rènshi 'introduce ... get to know' exemplifies a particular Chinese construction where 认识 rènshi (getting to know) is the objective or purpose of 介绍 jièshao (introducing). In this construction the verb 认识 rènshi has no arguments indicating subject, object, etc; the verb 认识 rènshi is bare. However, it is understood as 'he gets to know them'.

互相交流 hùxiāng jiāoliú 'mutually interact' is a continuation of 认识; the actors are understood as being unchanged. The use of 一下 yíxià 'a bit' is a means of signalling a suggestion in ordinary speech.

b) Although there is only a comma separating it, what follows is grammatically a completely new sentence:

No personal pronouns are used -- which is normal in Chinese -- but the focus remains on 他 'he', the young friend.

As shown in the English gloss, the first part could also be understood as 'Although the line they are engaged in is different'. While there is ambiguity, there is no semantic contradiction in this vague interpretation since the relationship is a symmetrical one.

The final 一下 yíxià 'a bit' again indicates that this is a suggestion offered to the 'young friend'.

While the speaker probably did not use the exact words reported in the piece, the lack of personal pronouns means that there is no formal difference between direct and indirect modes. The main difference lies in the understood pronoun, which would have been 你 'you' rather than 他 'he'. The hypothetical original (DIRECT SPEECH) would have been:


The reported speech in this sentence begins with the pronoun 你 'you' , which was the pronoun actually used.

The rest of the reported speech reflects what the narrator purportedly said to the 'young friend'.


a) The first sentence uses DIRECT SPEECH; the speaker is the 小朋友 xiǎo-péngyuo 'young friend'. 你这两个朋友 nǐ zhè liǎngge péngyou 'these two friends of yours' are (purportedly) the actual words used by the 'young friend' to the speaker. References to the two friends as 他们 tāmen 'they' similarly reflects the words of the 'young friend'. (混口饭吃 hùn kǒu fàn chī means 'get by' (混 hùn) 'a bite, a meal' (一口饭 yī kǒu fàn) 'to eat' (吃 chī).)

b) In formal terms the second sentence is INDETERMINATE -- it could be either DIRECT or INDIRECT speech since no pronoun replacement is expected for third person. Normally this will be interpreted as DIRECT SPEECH.


Like the previous example, this purports to represent the words used by the narrator's friends, including the use of 你的小朋友 nǐ de xiǎo-péngyou 'your young friend'.


Further down, there is a sentence containing two segments of reported speech, operating on the principle of 'I said, he said', plus a sentence that is not reported speech.

a) The first sentence of reported speech is DIRECT SPEECH, the narrator's own question:

This is literally 'Think go where appropriate?' With pronouns inserted, this would be 你看我们去哪儿合适 nǐ kàn wǒmen/zán qù nǎr héshì? i.e., 'Where do you think it would be appropriate for us to go?' The omission of pronouns is very much in keeping with spoken Chinese.

b) The next segment is the friend's reply:

This is DIRECT SPEECH. There is no pronoun shift; the content directly represents what the speaker is supposed to have said. The first sentence, 不去酒店了 bú qù jiǔdiàn le, is in the form of a command or strong suggestion, roughly equivalent to 'Let's not go to a hotel'. As in the English, the understood subject is 'us'.

The second sentence uses the subject 咱 zán 'us', a pronoun of solidarity, and represents an appeal (to the narrator) that 'we' are not meeting to discuss specific business. Note the use of 又不是 yòu bú shì 'it's not', an expression of dismissal.

The third sentence has as its formal subject 朋友几个人 péngyou jǐge rén 'a few friends'. Its relationship to the rest of the sentence is vague. It could be the subject ('a few friends (should) choose an out-of-the-way place with character') or it could be the topic of the sentence ('for a few friends, (should) choose an out-of-the-way place with character'). However, since it is the narrator who is making the choice, the Topic interpretation is the appropriate one. The sense of the sentence is: "For the purpose of a few friends (getting together) you should choose an out-of-the-way place with character." This sentence illustrates the vagueness that can arise in a topicalising, pro-drop language like Chinese. Since this is probably a reproduction of what the person told the narrator, this is DIRECT SPEECH.

c) The final sentence is not reported speech; it indicates the actions of the narrator:

4. Comment

1. In this passage, there is little formal indication of reported speech. In almost all cases, reported speech follows a verb of speaking (mostly 说 shuō 'to say'), separated by a comma.

2. Both direct and indirect speech, mostly disinguishable on the basis of pronoun usage, is used for reported speech. Direct speech appears to be used where vividness of expression is aimed for. It is not always possible to determine whether direct or indirect speech is involved.

3. Comma use is relatively loose. In normal Chinese prose commas are used as a boundary between grammatically distinct sentences. In the case of reported speech, commas are also often used to separate the verb of speaking from reported speech. They are also used to separate grammatically separate sentences WITHIN reported speech.

4. Chinese usage as seen in this passage is close to English spoken usage, where indirect speech and direct speech is often deployed in a flexible manner. However, it is very loose compared with English written practice, which generally tries to draw a strict line between direct and indirect speech.

wǒ shuō:“wǒ ài ” ➔ wǒ shuō wǒ ài .
tā shuō:“tā ài ” ➔ tā shuō tā ài .
wǒ shuō:“wǒ ài ” ➔ wǒ shuō wǒ ài .
tā shuō tā píngshí chūmén yě shi zhèyàng.
tā shuō wǒ píngshí chūmén yě shi zhèyàng.
tíngxià hòu, cóng chē chuāng lǐmiàn ná chū yī-píng yángjiǔ, shuō jīn wǎnshàng cháng-chang.
péngyǒu wèn wǒ de xiǎo-péngyǒu, nǐ shi zìjǐ gàn háishì gěi rén dǎ gōng gān?
péngyǒu wèn wǒ de xiǎo-péngyǒu, tā shi zìjǐ gàn háishì gěi rén dǎ gōng gān?
jùhuì shi wǒ zǔzhī de, yīnwèi zài cǐ zhīqián, wǒ céng gēn xiǎo-péngyǒu shuō-guò, yào gěi tā jièshào jǐgè zuò shēngyì de péngyǒu rènshi, hùxiàng jiāoliú yíxià, suīrán cóngshì de hángdang bù yíyàng, dàn jiù zuò shēngyì lái jiǎng, huì yǒu hěn duō gòngtóngdiǎn kěyǐ jièjiàn yíxià.
[wǒ] yào gěi tā jièshào jǐgè zuò shēngyì de péngyǒu rènshi, hùxiàng jiāoliú yíxià.
suīrán cóngshì de hángdang bù yíyàng, dàn jiù zuò shēngyì lái jiǎng, huì yǒu hěn duō gòngtóngdiǎn kěyǐ jièjiàn yíxià.
suīrán cóngshì de hángdang bù yíyàng, dàn jiù zuò shēngyì lái jiǎng, huì yǒu hěn duō gòngtóngdiǎn kěyǐ jièjiàn yíxià.
jùhuì qián, wǒ céng gēn péngyǒu diànhuà shāngliáng-guò, kàn qù nǎ héshì, péngyǒu shuō, bú qù jiǔdiàn le, zán yòu bú shì zhèng-er-bā-jīng de chǔlǐ yèwù, péngyǒu jǐge rén xuǎn ge piānpì yǒu tèsè de dìfāng jiù xíng, suǒyǐ dìng le zhè jiā diàn.
kàn qù nǎ héshì
bú qù jiǔdiàn le, zán yòu bú shì zhèng-er-bā-jīng de chǔlǐ yèwù, péngyǒu jǐge rén xuǎn ge piānpì yǒu tèsè de dìfāng jiù xíng
suǒyǐ dìng le zhè jiā diàn.
wǒ kànzhe jiù xiǎng xiào, gēn tā shuō, nǐ jīntiān zěnme zhème zhèngshì? bú shì shuō-hǎo le jǐge péngyǒu zhǎo ge xiǎo diàn jiǎndān jù yíxià ma? zhēnshi méiyǒu bìyào de.
jiéshù hòu, xiǎo-péngyǒu duì wǒ shuō, nǐ zhè liǎngge péngyǒu yě méi shénme chūsè de dìfāng, yě jiù shì gàn ge shēngyì hùn kǒu fàn chī, kàn tāmen de chuānyī jiù néng zhīdào……
wǒ shuō, tāmen zhè-kǒu fàn chī dé hái kěyǐ.
suīrán jiéshù hòu, péngyǒu duì wǒ shuō, nǐ de xiǎo-péngyǒu hái méiyǒu chī-guò kuī, děng tā diē-guò jǐge dào hòu, shénme dōu huì míngbái, tā shǐzhōng bù kěn chéngrèn tā shi ge dǎgōng de, sǐ yào miànzi, bù kěn bǎ zìjǐ fàng dī, zhège kuī zǎowǎn děi chī.