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.

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

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 much more fluid.

Direct speech is (or at least purports to be) an exact reproduction of the words of the speaker, although it is often more used as a means of adding animation to language (see Reported speech in Chinese political discourse). It's inserted in the sentence as an isolated, independent element, and in the written language is customarily enclosed in quotation marks (inverted commas) to set it apart:

He said, "I went there yesterday".

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

"I went there yesterday," he said.

Indirect speech, on the other hand, incorporates the reported content into the overall grammar of the sentence by:

(1) marking it with the relative pronoun "that" or "whether" (for questions),

(2) converting to narrator-centric use of pronouns,

(3) matching verb tense to the larger context,

(4) converting place references to the point of view of the overall narrative (e.g., 'here' rather than 'there'), and

(5) converting time references to the point of view of the overall narrative (e.g., 'the day before' rather than 'yesterday').

For example, our sentence above might become:

He said that(1) he(2) had been(3) here(4) the day before(5).

2. Reported Speech in Chinese

reported speech

In Chinese, the distinction is fuzzier.

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

For indirect speech, looking at the features found in English above:

(1) Chinese lacks a grammatical marker like "that" to signal reported content. Chinese simply adds the reported content after the verb of speaking or asking. In writing, a comma is usually added after the verb of saying or asking, but in short sentences even that is omitted.

(2) Unlike English, where it's obligatory to indicate tense or aspect in finite verbs, Chinese verbs aren't necessarily so marked. Even where it's marked, there's no requirement for the tense of the verb in indirect speech to be altered to match the main verb of the larger narrative.

(3) The main mark of indirect speech in Chinese, as in English, is the substitution of different pronouns. Depending on the actors involved, 'you' (你 ) could become 'he/she' (他/她 ),

我说:“我爱” ➔ 我说我爱

I said, "I love you" ➔ I said I loved her.

or 'I' (我 ),

他说:“她爱” ➔ 他说她爱

He said, "She loves you" ➔ He said she loved me.

but could remain as 'you' (你 ):

我说:“我爱” ➔ 我说我爱

I said, "I love you" ➔ I said I loved you.

(4, 5) As in English, time adverbials and place adverbials can be changed to take the time of reported speech as standard; for example, 'yesterday' in direct speech will become 'the day before' in indirect speech, 'tomorrow' in direct speech will become 'the next day' in indirect speech, etc.

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.



He said that's normally how he is when he goes out.

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

As DIRECT SPEECH, the sentence would be:


He said, that's normally how I am when I go out.



After stopping, he took a bottle of foreign liquor out of the basket of his bicycle and said let's try it this evening.

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.

INDETERMINATE: there is no formal distinction here between INDIRECT and DIRECT speech.



My friend asked my young friend, do you have own business or work for someone else?

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 ):


My friend asked my young friend does he have his own business or work for someone else.

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


聚会是我组织的,因为在此之前,我曾跟小朋友说过,要给他介绍几个做生意的朋友认识,互相交流一下, 虽然从事的行当不一样,但就做生意来讲,会有很多共同点可以借鉴一下

I was the one who arranged the gathering, because I'd said to my young friend that I would introduce him to some friends who are in business so he could get to know them and interact with them a bit. Although they are in a different line, from the point of view of doing business there would be many points in common that he could learn from.

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').

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

[我]要给他介绍几个做生意的朋友认识, 互相交流一下。

'[I] wanted to introduce him to several friends who are in business to get to know [them] and interact [with them] a bit'.

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.

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


While the line [he or they] is/are engaged in is different, from the point of view of doing business there will be many points in common that [he] can learn from.

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

The first part could, however, also be understood as 'Although the line they are engaged in is different'. There is no contradiction in this vague interpretation.

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

While no pronoun is used, the entire section can be understood as replacing the 你 'you' of the original speech act with 他 'he'. The original (DIRECT SPEECH) would supposedly have been:


While the line [you or they] are engaged in is different, from the point of view of doing business there will be many points in common that [you] can learn from.


我看着就想笑, 跟他说,你今天怎么这么正式? 不是说好了几个朋友找个小店简单聚一下吗? 真是没有必要的。

I wanted to laugh when I saw [him], said to him, why are you so formal today? Didn't [we] agree that [it would be] a few friends finding a small restaurant for a simple get-together? There's really no need.

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

The rest of the reported speech, including 不是说好了吗? bú shi shuō-hǎo le ma? 'Didn't [we] agree?', directly reflects the amazement or exasperation of the speaker.




After we had finished, my young friend said to me, there is nothing remarkable about these two friends of yours, they're just doing business to get by, you can tell from the clothes they wear....

I said they weren't earning a bad crust (were eating quite well).

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 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).)

In formal terms the second is INDETERMINATE -- it could be either DIRECT or INDIRECT speech. But in the context it can be interpreted as DIRECT SPEECH.



Although it was after things finished, my friend told me, your young friend hasn't suffered losses yet, wait till he has fallen over a few times, he'll understand everything, he doesn't want to admit that he is working for someone else, he's stuck on keeping face, doesn't want to put himself on a low level, this is a loss that he must use sooner or later.

Like the previous example, this represents the language 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'.


Before the get-together, I had discussed with my friends by phone, where do [you] think it's appropriate to go, my friends said, [let's] not go to a hotel, we aren't doing serious business, for a few friends choosing an out-of-the-way place with character is ok, so [I] decided on this restaurant.

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.

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 features the Topic construction. 朋友几个人 péngyou jǐge rén 'a few friends' is the Topic of the sentence, not the subject. It doesn't imply that the 'few friends' should choose an out-of-the-way place with character. It means that, for the purpose of a few friends getting together (the topic of the sentence), the best place to choose is an out-of-the-way place with character. It is the narrator, not the friends, who makes the choice.

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


'so decided on (or booked) this restaurant'

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.