Direct and indirect speech

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There are two ways of reporting what somebody said. One way is to use the exact words of the other person. In writing, this is done by putting the original words in quotation marks (direct speech). The other way is to incorporate the original words into a sentence (indirect speech):

Direct speech
Sie sagte: „Ich bin glücklich.“
She said, ‘I am happy.’

Indirect speech
Sie sagte, sie sei glücklich.
She said she was happy.

Indirect speech in English and German

Changing tenses in English – In English, indirect speech is mainly signalled by a shift in tense:

She said, ‘I am happy.’ → She said she was happy.
He said, ‘I need more money.’ → He said he needed more money.

Specific verb form in German – Konjunktiv I
German however has a specific verb form, Konjunktiv I, to indicate what somebody said:
Sie sagte: „Ich bin glücklich.“ → Sie sagte, sie sei glücklich.
Er sagte: „Ich brauche mehr Geld.“ → Er sagte, er brauche mehr Geld.

The formation and usage of Konjunktiv I will be explained in the following sections.

Konjunktiv I – formation

The Konjunktiv I of both regular and irregular verbs is constructed with the stem of the verb in the infinitive + the appropriate endings. Irregular verbs in this construction do not change their stem vowel.

  lebenfahrenhabensein
leb- fahr- hab- sei
ich -e lebefahrehabesei
du -(e)st lebestfahresthabestsei(e)st
er/sie/es -e lebefahrehabehabesei
wir -enlebenfahrenhabenseien
ihr -(e)t lebt fahr(e)t habt seiet
Sie/sie -enlebenfahrenhabenseien

Note that sein doesn’t add an -e in the ich and er/sie/es forms.

Konjunktiv I – usage

Konjunktiv I is mainly used in written texts such as newspaper articles, reports, essays etc. to signal indirect speech. Here are some examples of how direct speech can be transformed into indirect speech, using a Konjunktiv I construction:

Direct speech Madonna sagte: „Ich wohne gern in London.“
Indirect speech Madonna sagte, sie wohne gern in London.
Madonna said she liked living in London.

Direct speech Sie betonten: „Wir sind nur gute Freunde.“
Indirect speech Sie betonten, sie seien nur gute Freunde.
They emphasised they were only good friends.

Note that in German, there is always a comma separating the two parts of the sentence in indirect speech.