Present tense reported speech


Dabbling too deep into the theoretical grammar, I found myself in front of an unexpected obstacle. Logically speaking, if the present simple tense is mostly focused on habitual events, then when I'm reporting something that was said just a while ago, should I go with:

Lucy says she wants to play World of Warcraft now.


Lucy is saying she wants to play World of Warcraft now.

Personally, I'd choose the first option, though I'm not convinced that the second one is incorrect.

On the other hand, I feel that dropping the word "now" would make the sentence ambiguous, changing the possible meaning to something like "She said that she wants to play it someday". In this case I'm even more doubtful about the correctness of the present continues option. I feel the same about:

Lucy tells me she wants to see Florida.

Lucy is telling me she wants to see Florida.

Bebop B.

Posted 2015-04-26T12:57:42.563

Reputation: 1 067

2I think you've hit the nail on the head in your first sentence (dabbling too deep). Present Continuous strongly implies Lucy is speaking right now, at this very moment, so the actual word "now" is somewhat redundant (but by no means incorrect or otherwise unusual). If Lucy had actually been saying for several days that she wanted to play WoW at three o'clock on Sunday afternoon, Simple Present would still be perfectly okay even if in fact she hadn't specifically said it today (continuous would credible but unlikely), but that's a very fine distinction that would rarely be relevant. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-04-26T13:13:46.700

Okay, but let's say I'm on the phone with my other friend, and Lucy pats me on the shoulder saying she's waiting for me to finish talking. Is it perfectly fine and natural to say "Sorry, but Lucy says she wants to play WoW, so I'll talk to you later"? Or should I stick to the continuous form: "Lucy is saying..."? – Bebop B. – 2015-04-26T13:20:49.433

3Context is king. These sentences could mean any number of things. For example, Lucy says she wants to play tennis could mean, "Lucy would prefer that we play tennis rather than go to that movie" or "Lucy wants to learn how to play tennis". Lucy is saying the piano needs tuning could mean "Since you are hard of hearing, I'll repeat what Lucy has just said, and I'll shout the words into your ear, dear." or "Lucy has mentioned on a number of occasions recently that the piano is out of tune". – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-04-26T13:29:15.517

1Both versions are fine, and in your exact context it's unlikely the listener would draw any inference from the choice you made. I'm sure most native speakers would use Simple Present, because in general we avoid the more complex tense where it conveys no additional information. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-04-26T13:30:19.877

1I agree with all the comments above, but I wonder how often native speakers will use tells (or is telling) for saying that Lucy told the speaker that "a while ago" in reporting (which is different from re-telling, where the present tenses can be used whenever it's appropriate, even though the event happened years or ages ago). – Damkerng T. – 2015-04-26T14:15:28.447

Perhaps I should have said "a second ago" - I meant a really short period of time before reporting what someone said. – Bebop B. – 2015-04-26T14:31:37.863

1I'm a native AmE speaker... In your phone conversation example in the comments, I'd definitely be at least as likely to say "Lucy is saying" as I'd be to say "Lucy says".... particularly if someone asked "What is she saying?". – Catija – 2015-04-26T16:17:27.587

So a rule of thumb might be that the present continuous is applied when our intention is to directly report what something has said, while the simple present might serve as a way to convey the general message, right? Therefore, "I spoke to Mike; he says he wants to grab a beer after work" is slightly more probable than "I spoke to Mike; he is saying he wants to (...)"? – Bebop B. – 2015-04-26T17:26:20.827

1Mike says he wants to grab a beer after work. Mike's saying he wants to grab a beer after work. It's really a toss up as to which is more probable. Their probability is context-bound. The latter could mean "Where we all go after work has still not been decided. Mike has weighed in, and his preference is to go out for a beer." whereas the former could mean "Mike says he'll join us, but only if we go out for a beer. He's not interested in having dinner. If that's what we decide, he'll take a raincheck." "Mike is saying" could imply that Mike is still a willing participant in the discussion. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-04-26T17:47:19.743

@TRomano: If by it's really a toss-up you mean both versions are equally likely, I'd have to challenge that. The syntactically identical statement she says she wants to go home occurs an estimated 1510 times in Google Bookas, compared to a single instance of she is saying she wants to go home. They're equally valid, but nowhere near equally common.

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-04-28T15:32:04.900

@FumbleFingers: I wrote "Their probability is context-bound". With Google searches it's nearly impossible to restrict context. So, imagine the context where grandpa is going deaf, and grandma is shouting into his ear what their granddaughter, Mary, has just said. The "toss-up"in context is between Mary is saying she likes the doll-house you built for her. and Mary says she likes the doll-house you built for her. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-04-28T15:38:00.277

@TRomano: Sorry, I think you're just completely mistaken. Even given the highly "suggestive, leading" context where Grandpa shouts to his wife "What's she saying?" (where in principle you might expect Grandma to echo back the same Present Continuous form), I'd be prepared to bet any money "She says you should get a hearing aid" would occur far more often than "She is saying you should get a hearing aid". I think that like OP, you're overanalysing this at the "hypothetical semantics" level and ignoring/underplaying the realities of actual usage. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-04-28T16:00:24.073 fact, why mess about with "thoughts/opinions"? It's easy enough to "prove"... From Google Books: "What's she saying" "she says": about 4340 results, but "What's she saying" "she is saying" about 68 results.

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-04-28T16:04:50.543

@FumbleFingers: Google's database contains texts, not transcripts of speech; the sort of speech contexts that would call for "is saying" are largely absent from the database. Those results are, therefore, so skewed that they have little meaning for this kind of question. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-04-28T17:02:30.910

1Both versions are fine. They both are grammatical in today's standard English. It is up to the speaker as to which one they might prefer in any single context. If a context had been provided, then we could perhaps suggest why one version might have been preferred by the speaker. :) – F.E. – 2015-04-28T17:02:55.533

1Consider these completely unremarkable examples: "Lucy is saying that she wants to play World of Warcraft now", "Lucy is saying that she wants to play World of Warcraft tomorrow", "Lucy is saying that she wants to play World of Warcraft next weekend", "Lucy is saying that she wants to play World of Warcraft". What I *am saying* is that they are all fine examples. – F.E. – 2015-04-28T17:06:45.200

@TRomano: Sure, G Books is text, not actual speech. But obviously the specific text we're looking at is *reported speech*, so it does to a considerable extent reflect what many writers believe to be "natural speech". I'm not in the least suggesting there's anything remotely "wrong" with present continuous here. Simply that in practice it's far less common than simple present. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-04-29T11:34:39.393

@FumbleFingers: And all I'm saying is that we cannot judge relative frequency of "says" versus "is saying" in contexts where both would be apt choices because with Google we cannot identify those contexts where both would be apt choices. Are you saying that both are apt choices in all contexts? That whenever we say "says" we could say "is saying" and they would be equally idiomatic? – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-04-29T13:08:41.840

You are aware that present continuous is used for habitual actions? Lucy is playing a lot more WoW (now). I mention this because of your statement regarding the "logic" of using the simple present vs the present continuous. – None – 2015-04-30T00:42:14.893



Both are correct. There are two main effects of the second forms with present continuous verbs. They emphasize ongoing current action. "Lucy is saying..." suggests that the statement is still in progress (mid-sentence). The other possible effect of changing from 'says' to 'is saying' is to emphasize the statement. The use of 'to be' is warranted if the existence of the action is itself important. Otherwise, it is generally clearer and more efficient to use simple conjugation verbs. Basically, unless you particularly want to emphasize the timing ('happening now') you should use simple.


Posted 2015-04-26T12:57:42.563

Reputation: 662

2-1 I don't think active/passive verb forms is remotely connected to this question. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-04-28T15:35:02.330

Ha ha, you are quite right. I'm not sure what made me think of "active vs passive" instead of "simple vs present continuous". Of course, other than that misreference, I stand by my answer. But now a it better to revise the answer or leave the error and correction as possibly useful clarification? – elc – 2015-04-28T16:31:37.177

1@elc: Go ahead and fix it. The only time to leave it is if there's no way to salvage an answer without wholly rewriting from premise on up. – Nathan Tuggy – 2015-04-28T17:50:30.907

1Absolutely what @Nathan said. I got an inbox ping/notification because the SE software is smart enough to guess your comment must be a reply to mine. Thus I've been prompted to review and remove the downvote (and you won't get any more for that reason), so it's in your own interests on the rep front. But mainly it helps improve the site itself. It's up to you whether your revised answer still references original errors now corrected. Ask yourself whether it'll help future visitors, bearing in mind that we or the mods might delete these comments at any time, so you don't need to explain them. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-04-29T11:30:43.227