Japanese · SLAP (Speak Like A Person) Exercises

SLAP#8 “He said, she said” or “He was saying, she was saying?”… 言った vs 言っていた

I like to go to Japanese hair salons, even when I’m not in Japan. I’ve been in the U.S. and Korea, and was hoping to find one in northern France, where I’m living now, but alas… 日本人の美容室【びようしつ】ないんだよね〜 *sigh*.

However, I did find a SLAP-worthy sentence! It’s from the blog of a Japanese woman who lives in my region and finally mustered up the courage to go to a local salon her husband recommended. Here’s how she said it:

I went to this salon that my husband always said was good.

日頃【ひごろ】normally, habitually
夫【おっと】my husband
言う【いう】 to say
行く【いく】to go

When I first saw that, I thought “言っていた  = 言っている (to be saying) in past tense = to have been saying.” This is normally what the 〜ている form means. And is suggested by the fact that she says 日頃から (normally).

However, turns out that 言っていた has another purpose, specific to the word 言う: you use it when quoting a third person even when the person only said that thing once. So even if her husband just said 「ココいいよー」/ “here is good” once, the blogger would still have said 言っていた.

Apparently some textbooks do discuss this, but I never learned. In fact, I’ve been mixing up 言ってた and 言った all these years… Oopssss! But why do we use 言っていた and when do we use 言った??I tried to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Reported vs Relayed Speech

言った is for reporting that someone said something whereas 言っていた is for relaying the contents of what they said. Imagine I said the following sentences to you:

(1) 友だちは納豆が好きだと言った
(2) 友だちは納豆が好きだと言っていた

友【とも】だち friend
納豆【なっとう】popular Japanese breakfast food made by fermenting soy beans. Smells like feet.

Sentence (1) is more similar to the English sentence,”My friend said, ‘I like natto.'” I’m reporting that a third person, “my friend,” said this, verbatim. So you might reply, “Really? Your friend said that??”.

On the other hand, sentence (2) is more similar to “My friend said that he likes natto.“Now, I’m relaying the message to you and focusing on what this third person meant as opposed to what they said word-for-word. You might reply “Really? Your friend likes natto?!?!”.

Here they are again:

(1) 友達は納豆が好きだと言った ≈ My friend said, “I like natto.”
→→→”Really? He said that?”
(2) 友達は納豆が好きだと言っていた ≈ My friend said that he likes natto.
→→→”Really? He likes natto?”

So when do you use 言った?

As one native speaker put it, 言った “fits in academic report or formal letter.” A blogger notes that Japanese novelists use 言った for “he/she/they said”, for instance in these Murakami Haruki excerpts:

Murakami is narrating a story to us, i.e. reporting to us what a character said.

Probably because of this impersonal feel, some native speakers have noted that 言った can come off as assertive. Further, if you say 言った in a conversation, as another native speaker put it, “It sounds not like a message…[but like]… you are talking to yourself.” 言っていた on the other hand sounds “avoiding to be assertive” and “like a message.”

But I’m sure you’ve heard Japanese people saying things like 「今なんて言った?」in regards to a third person: “What did they say?”

今【いま】: now; just now
なん : abbreviated form of なに (what) as in なんで, なんか, なんとか, etc
て, って : casual form of と (quoting particle)

In this case, they want to know exactly what this third person said, word-for-word. Imagine you’re in a math class, and the teacher is listing out the answers to the problems. If you miss what the teacher says, you can ask your friend next to you,「今なんて言った?」since you want to know the exact answers the teacher said.

This section synthesizes information from these WRef posts and this blog.

But why do we only use 言っていた for third persons?

This begs the question of why we need to use 言っていた in third person but not in first or second person. For instance, if you want to say, “I/you said I/you like natto,” you could simply say 納豆が好きだと言った instead of 言っていた.

The blog I mentioned above noted that saying 言っていた ensures that the listener knows that you’re quoting a third person and not yourself. This is helpful as Japanese people omit their subjects all the time. So even if you just say 納豆が好きだと言っていた, your listener will still know that you’re not saying that you like natto, but that some third person said it. (Whew!)

Practicalities aside, I think another reason for the distinction between 言った and 言っていた is that Japanese people don’t like to sound too certain when discussing the thoughts and feelings of third persons. I remember my Japanese teacher would tell me to say things like “(彼が)さむそうだった / He looked cold” instead of “(彼が)さむかった / He was cold.” Even when I knew for a fact that the person I was talking about was cold. “But you don’t know,” my teacher would insist. Touché.


This need to use 〜ていた when talking about what a third person said only applies to the verb 言う. For other verbs related to speaking, like さけぶ / shout, ささやく / whisper, or つぶやく / mutter, there is no need to put them in 〜ていた form.


Your Turn!

Remember, none of this will help you if you don’t use it in real life. Try making a sentence where you quote something someone (e.g. a friend, a parent, a co-worker) said to you and post it below! Use 言っていた and Sound Like A Person, my friends.


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