Indirect speech in german grammar

When to use indirect speech in German?

When we report what someone said, we usually do not use the original wording (literal speech), but only give the content in spirit – we use the indirect speech. Very often we find this form in the press or news, when statements of third persons are repeated analogously.

Indirect speech is introduced by phrases.

Examples: Er sagt(e), ..
She means(s), ..
He claims(s), ..
She states/stated ..
He explained(e), ..
She tells(s), ..
He state(s) ..
She ask(s), ..
He report(s), ..


Mandy is sitting in the cafe where Jan is working. He tells her the following: "I saw a television presenter. She was here yesterday and had an ice cream."
A week later, Mandy is on the phone with a friend: "I met Jan the other day at the cafe. He said, That he had seen a female TV presenter. She had been there the day before and had eaten an ice cream."

How to convert direct speech into indirect speech?

When converting from direct to indirect speech, we need to keep the following points in mind:

  • We may need to change the pronouns. Example: He said, "I saw a television presenter."
    → He said that he had seen a television presenter.
  • We need to adjust the verb form (use subjunctive). Example: he said she ate an ice cream."
    → He said that she had eaten an ice cream .
  • We need to change place and time references when necessary. Example: He said, "She was here yesterday ."
    → He said that she had been there the day before.

Propositional phrases in indirect speech

We can use declarative sentences in indirect speech with That Or without a conjunction, or append to the introductory phrase.

Let’s start the indirect speech with that, the finite verb is at the end of the sentence.

Example: He said that he had seen a television presenter .

If we start the indirect speech without a conjunction, there is a normal main clause after the comma (in the subjunctive). This form is especially common when several sentences in indirect speech follow each other without a new introductory sentence in between.

Example: He said he had seen a television presenter. He said that she had been there the day before and had eaten an ice cream.

Interrogative clauses in indirect speech

We introduce supplementary questions in indirect speech with the question word.

Example: I asked, "What did she look like??"
→ I asked, like sie ausgesehen habe / sie looked .

In decision questions (questions without a question word), we start indirect speech with whether.

Example: I asked: "Did she tip you??"
→ I asked, whether she had given him a tip .

Requests/pleas in indirect speech

In indirect speech prompts, we usually use the modal verb shall. If we want to sound especially polite, we use like (mainly upscale language).

Example: He said to me, "Don’t be so curious about!"
→ He said I should / should not be so curious. He told the guest, "Please come back a little later."
→ He said that the guest should please come back a little later.

However, we can also express prompts and requests with an infinitive clause. However, we may need to choose a different introductory phrase for this.

Example: He asked me not to be so nosy .
→ He asked the guest to please come back a little later .

Why to use subjunctive in Indirect Speech?

In everyday speech, we very often use indirect speech in the indicative in German. However, in written and elevated language, we should take subjunctive. This is due to the following reasons:

  • Let’s use Indicative, we could conclude that we believe the original speaker or the person we are talking to. agree. Example: Walter says, that he is sick . Walter says he is sick.
  • Let’s use Subjunctive, makes it clear that we are just repeating what the original speaker said (whether we believe him or not). So the subjunctive is a neutral form, which is why indirect speech is always rendered in the subjunctive in news and newspaper articles. Example: Walter says, that he is sick . Walter says he’s sick.

How to convert tenses to indirect speech?

If we render indirect speech in the subjunctive, we usually use the forms of subjunctive I (unless it agrees with the indicative, cf Use of subjunctive II and would below).

direct speech indirect speech
Present tense "I go."
"I read."
He says(s) he is going.
He says/said he reads.
Perfect "I left."
"I read."
He says he left.
He says he has read.
Preterite "I went."
"I read."
past perfect "I had gone."
"I had read."
Future tense I "I will go."
"I will read."
He says he will go.
He says he will read.
Future tense II "I will have gone."
"I will have read."
He says he will be gone.
He says he will have read.

Use of subjunctive II and "would"

If one form of the subjunctive agrees with the indicative, we must switch to other forms to make it clear that all forms are subjunctive.

  • If the form of subjunctive I agrees with the indicative, we take subjunctive II. This is especially the case with the 1. Person singular (me) and the 1. and 3. Person plural (we, they). Often we also prefer in the 2. Person (you, her) the subjunctive II. Example: he said, "They’ve been waiting for us." He said they were waiting for us .
    (instead of: He said they were waiting for us. )
  • If the form of subjunctive II again agrees with the past tense of the indicative, we use the paraphrase with would. Example: He said: "They laugh a lot." He said that they would laugh a lot .
    (Instead of: He said they laughed a lot. )

If we use subjunctive II in indirect speech, although subjunctive I would be possible, one could conclude that we doubt the truth of the statement.

Example: Walter says he is sick. (neutral) Walter says he would be sick. (doubt if it’s true)

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