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What Is Indirect Discourse?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Indirect discourse is a form of expression often used in written or spoken narrative works, as well as daily conversation, in which a comment is relayed indirectly by a speaker without quotation marks. The purpose is to provide dialog or other commentary by one person through the perspective of someone else. It is often found in dialog within a narrative, or in a written work that is narrated by one particular individual. Writers can use indirect discourse to provide information without a direct quotation, which also allows the writer to provide information about the person relaying a comment.

Examples can be seen in a sentence such as “The woman wondered where she was.” In this statement, the woman is wondering something, but it is not placed in quotations separate from the sentence, much like in the sentence “That man said that he is a police officer.” Both of these examples of indirect discourse are in contrast to direct discourse like “The woman wondered, ‘Where am I?’” in which the comment is a direct quotation.

The purpose of indirect discourse is to provide dialog or other commentary by one person through the perspective of someone else. It is often found in dialog within a narrative, or in a written work that is narrated by one particular individual. Writers can use indirect discourse to provide information without a direct quotation, which also allows the writer to provide information about the person relaying a comment. When a direct quotation is used, then it typically only provides information about the original speaker, without the added perspective of the character relaying the information.

A simple example can be seen in a sentence like, “That man just croaked out that he was hungry.” This gives insight about the speaker in this statement, who is not the man that commented on being hungry. The speaker is relaying this information through indirect discourse, which allows him or her to amend the original statement with the word “croaked.” This word relays information to a reader about the commentator and not the original speaker.

In contrast to this, a piece of direct discourse might be, “That man just said, ‘I’m hungry’.” This provides information only about the original speaker, since only the original information is delivered without additional information by the second speaker. Of course, this can be changed to “That man just croaked out, ‘I’m hungry’,” but then that may mean the original speaker actually said it in a way that sounded like a croak. The shift from direct to indirect discourse is subtle, but the extra level of communication that it allows can be quite powerful.

Indirect discourse should not be confused with unspoken discourse, which indicates thoughts rather than spoken words. An example of unspoken discourse would be, “The girl wondered, ‘Where am I?’” Unspoken discourse is thought directly by a character, and is often indicated by the use of quotation marks. An example of indirect unspoken discourse would be “The girl wondered where she was.” This lacks both quotation marks and a question mark, since it is not actually presented as a question.

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Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Mar 25, 2014

Indirect discourse is very important in storytelling. When I read a good story, I can actually see it happening in my mind. Indirect discourse makes it easier for the words to come alive because the reader is observing the characters just as the writer is. At least I feel this way when I read a story with lots of indirect discourse.

By bear78 — On Mar 25, 2014

@SarahGen-- If this is about an assignment, you should ask your instructor because he or she may have specific expectations.

You can use both types of discourse in a piece of writing in some cases, but if you are writing a story or a poem, you should probably stick to one discourse so as to not confuse the reader.

Scripts or screenplays often have both indirect and direct discourse. The scriptwriter uses indirect discourse in between dialogues to explain a scene and what a character is feeling and doing. But the script also has dialogues, which is basically direct discourse.

By SarahGen — On Mar 24, 2014

Can I use both indirect discourse and direct discourse in a piece of writing or should I stick to one type?

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