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Concourse 2

Indirect questions

indirect

Indirect questions are sometimes called embedded questions because the question is, well, embedded in another clause.  Like this:

Direct question Indirect / Embedded question
Where is the hospital? Can you tell me where the hospital is?
Will you be coming? Could you tell me if you will be coming?

Note that the questions word for a wh- question is embedded and for a yes-no question, we insert if into the clause.
There is a guide to wh- questions and another to negations and questions on this site.


forming

Forming indirect questions

A reminder: to make direct questions in English, we do one of three main things:

Form Example
Inverting subject and auxiliary verb (and be and have when acting as main verbs) Can you help?
Are you going?
Have you just arrived?
Have you (got) enough money?
Using the do operator with main or lexical verbs Do you need me?
Does she remember?
Did she arrive?
Using a wh- word with no word-order changes (although there are complications with how and with subjects and objects) Where is the hospital?
How can he get here?
What's his name?

All of that should be familiar to you.  If it isn't, try the guide to negations and questions on this site.

Indirect questions are formed like this:

Form Example
Embedding the if / whether clause in a question Can you let me know if you can help?
Do you know if you are going?
Can you tell me whether she is coming?
Embedding the if / whether clause in a request or imperative Let me know if you need me
Tell me if you remember
Please inform me if she is late
Embedding a wh- word Can you tell me where the hospital is?
Do you know how he can get here?
May I know what his name is?
In this table, the request / imperative forms are included, not because they are questions as such but because they perform the same communicative function and share the same forms as indirect questions.
Other examples are statements such as:
    I can't understand why he did that = Can you tell me why he did that?
    I don't know what your name is = Could you tell me what your name is?
    I haven't been told what time he arrives = Can anyone tell me what time he arrives?



range

A range of forms

As you can see, an indirect question can be introduced in many ways.  The most frequently taught is the Can you ... / Could you ... form and it is very commonly used.  But it is not the only way and we impoverish our learners if we suggest that it is.

Other exponents include:
Indirect questions proper Statements etc. acting as indirect questions
Could you tell me + wh- / if / whether…?
Do you know + wh- / if / whether…?
Do you have any idea + wh- / if / whether …?
Would it be possible to tell me + wh- / if / whether…?
Is there any chance you can tell me + wh- / if / whether…?
Would you be kind enough to tell me + wh- / if / whether...?
Will he tell me + wh- / if / whether...?
I wonder if you can tell me ...
I was wondering …
I’d like to know …
Let me know ...
Tell me ...
Ask her ...
I will ask him where his house is


report

Reporting questions

There is a guide on this site to reported and indirect speech.
It is important to note two things:

  1. Both direct and indirect questions are reported in the same way.
  2. The forms of reported and indirect questions are parallel.

For example:

Indirect and direct questions and statement Reported questions
Could you tell me where the house is?
Where is the house?
He asked me where the house is / was
Do you know whether the bus has left?
Has the bus left?
He asked me whether the bus has / had left.
Do you have any idea whether she is in the building?
Is she in the building?
She wanted to know whether she is / was in the building.
John, I don't know where the station is
John, where is the station?
I asked John where the station is / was


asking

Using indirect questions

The most obvious reason we use indirect question forms in English is for politeness' sake.
For example, can you arrange these in order of politeness from direct to indirect?
Click here for a comment when you have thought about that.

  1. Tell me when the train leaves
  2. Can you tell me when the train leaves?
  3. Do you know when the train leaves?
  4. When does the train leave?
  5. Please tell me when the train leaves
  6. I was wondering if you know what time the train leaves
  7. Is it possible you could let me know what time the train leaves?
  8. Could you tell me what time the train leaves?
  9. Would you, by any chance, know what time the train leaves?
  10. I'm afraid I haven't looked at the timetable and don't know what time the train leaves
  11. I was wondering if you knew what time the train leaves

teach

Teaching indirect questions

other languages
language

Many languages, such as Spanish, German and other Germanic languages, do as English does and embed the question in a clause so that there is no doubling of the question word order.  In English, and a range of other languages, we cannot have:
    *Do you know what time does the train leave?
    *I was wondering can you help?
    *I want to know can she be here
    *Can you tell me if is she coming?
    *Could you explain what is he doing?

etc.
However, even more languages do allow this kind of word order and mistakes are frequently made.  In French, for example, the direct question form is similar to English so:
Where is the metro station? = Où est la station de métro ?
but the indirect question retains the question form:
Do you know where the metro station is? = Est-ce que vous savez / Savez-vous où est la station de métro ? [more or less literally Do you know where is the metro station?]

So, if your learners are producing:
    *I asked him where is the school
    *I want to know what is the time
    *Could you tell me how is it done?

etc. the reason is to do, almost certainly, with the learners' first-language structures.
The teaching implication here is that we need to be alert to this mismatch and make sure our learners notice the difference between their languages and English.
Word-for-word translation exercises can help the noticing along.

form
potter

Form needs very careful handling especially given the considerations about other languages above.
Although there are, as we have seen, many different ways to introduce an indirect question (can you tell me, could you tell me, would you let me know if etc.) it is safer to start with one or two only.
It is also safer to start with wh- forms before introducing the if / whether forms for yes-no questions.
The teaching implication is to take it one step at a time until the learners are comfortable manipulating the forms before being asked to apply them.
There are some choices concerning how to go about explaining the forms.

  1. The area combines quite naturally with reported questions.  It is a small step from, for example:
        He asked me when the film starts
    to
        Can you tell me when the film starts?
    The reverse also works because once learners can handle the indirect question forms, the reported question forms come naturally.  The difference lies in the change of tense sometimes required if the reporting of a question takes place at another time, e.g., with
        Where does this bus go?
    reported as
        He asked where the bus went.
  2. Another approach is to take a different analysis altogether and consider the clause as the object of the verb, i.e., a clause acting as if it were a noun.
    The analogy here is that if the learners have mastered, e.g.,
        He asked a question
        He knows the departure gate
    etc., in which the form is simply Subject + Verb + Object, then substituting a clause for the object is intuitively understandable for many.  We can get, therefore, from, e.g.,
        He knows the date and time of the meeting
    to
        He told me when the meeting is / was
    to
        Can you tell me when the meeting is?
    Clauses act as objects and subjects of verbs quite regularly in English so the concept is transferable to other areas and to structures such as:
        Where she is going to work is something we must decide [in which the clause is the subject of the verb]
        We need to decide where she is going to work [in which the clause is the object of the verb]

(If approach 2 is an appealing one for you, you may like to follow the (quite technical) guide to nominal clauses in the in-service training section of this site.)

tone and intonation
tone

Before you can begin to practise the forms in freer activities, it is very important to focus on polite intonation.  There is little point being able to use polite structures and language if you sound rude.
The teaching implication is to get the intonation right from the outset and not to deal only with grammatical form and then try to graft the intonation on later.

setting
station

The selection of an indirect question or statement rather than direct question is usually a matter of style and appropriacy.  The forms realise the same communicative functions in different settings.
The teaching implication is that when presenting or practising the area, to make the setting, intentions and relationships very clear.
Specifically, stranger-to-stranger encounters or those where there is an unequal power relationship are appropriate settings.
Here are some ideas:

  1. Using a graphic like this to set the scene for a role play of an information desk:
    information
    The sequence could start with something like:
        Can you tell me where the escalators are?
        Yes, to your left, madam.
        Could you tell me where the taxis leave from?
        Yes, sir, over there, to your right.
        Do you know where the baggage drop is?
        Through there, straight ahead, I think.
    etc.
    Almost any set of direction signs will be enough to set the context and relationships.
  2. A similar setting is an encounter between a customer wanting to rent a car and the car rental assistant filling in the form.  Get the learners to invent the questions after the first one or two.
    form filling
        Can you tell me how long you need the car?
        About six days.  I'm wondering if it's cheaper by the week.
        A little.  Do you think you'll be doing a lot of mileage?
        Probably not.  Can you advise me which deal is cheaper?

    etc.
  3. Tourist information encounters work well, too, because half the class can pretend to be strangers and the other half will know the answers for their own town / city.
    tourist information
        Do you know where the bus station is?
        Can you tell me how to get to ... ?

    etc.
    Once the scene is set and the relationships are clear, let your learners do the work of constructing and practising their own dialogues.
  4. An alternative is the same kind of procedure with a hotel reception.  In this case, both sides can ask and answer questions naturally.
    reception
        Do you know where I can rent a car?
        I wonder if it's possible to leave my luggage with you.

        Can you say how long you'll be staying?
        Can you tell me what your car's licence plate is, please?
        We need to know which payment method you'll be using.

    etc.

There is a short lesson for B1 / B2 learners on this site.



Related guides
wh-questions for a guide to a related area
negations and questions for a simple guide to forming and using interrogative and negative forms
reported and indirect speech for a guide to a closely related area
nominal clauses for a more technical discussion of how wh- and other clause types are nominalised as subjects and objects of verbs
verb and clause types for a more technical guide to fundamental clause structures