Indirect questions are a form used to be more polite in English. Consider the following situation: You are talking to a man at a meeting that you have never met. However, you know his name and also that this man knows a colleague named Jack. You turn to him and ask, "Where is Jack?" You might find that the man seems a little bothered and says he doesn't know. He isn't very friendly. You wonder why he seems bothered.
It's probably because you didn't introduce yourself, didn't say "excuse me," and-most importantly-you asked a direct question. Direct questions might be considered rude when speaking to strangers. To be more polite we often use indirect question forms. Indirect questions serve the same purpose as direct questions but are considered more formal. One of the main reasons for this is that English does not have a formal 'you' form. In other languages, it's possible to use the formal 'you' in order to make sure you are polite. In English, we turn to indirect questions.
Forming Indirect Questions
Information questions are posed using the question words "where," "what," "when," "how," "why," and "which." In order to form an indirect question, use an introductory phrase followed by the question itself in positive sentence structure:
Introductory phrase + question word + positive sentence
Connect the two phrases with the question word or 'if' in the case the question is a yes/no question. that begins without a question word.
- Where is Jack? > I was wondering if you know where Jack is.
- When does Alice usually arrive? > Do you know when Alice usually arrives?
- What have you done this week? > Can you tell me what you've done this week?
- How much does it cost? > I'd like to know how much it costs.
- Which color suits me? > I'm not sure which color suits me.
- Why did he leave his job? > I wonder why he left his job.
Here are some of the most common phrases used for asking indirect questions. Many of these phrases are questions (i.e., Do you know when the next train leaves?), while others are statements made to indicate a question (i.e., I wonder if he will be on time.).
- Do you know… ?
- I wonder / was wondering… .
- Can you tell me… ?
- Do you happen to know… ?
- I have no idea…
- I'm not sure…
- I'd like to know…
Sometimes we also use these phrases to indicate that we'd like some more information:
- Do you know when the concert begins?
- I wonder when he will arrive.
- Can you tell me how to check out a book.
- I'm not sure what he considers appropriate.
- I don't know if he is coming to the party this evening.
Now that you have a good understanding of indirect questions. Here's a short quiz to test your understanding. Take each direct question and create an indirect question with an introductory phrase.
- What time does the train leave?
- How long will the meeting last?
- When does he get off work?
- Why have they waited so long to react?
- Are you coming to the party tomorrow?
- Which car should I choose?
- Where are the books for the class?
- Does he enjoy hiking?
- How much does the computer cost?
- Will they attend the conference next month?
The answers use a variety of introductory phrases. There are many introductory phrases that are correct, only one is shown. Make sure to check the word order of the second half of your answer.
- Can you tell me what time the train leaves?
- I have no idea how long the meeting will last.
- I'm not sure when he gets off work.
- Do you know why they have waited so long to react?
- I wonder if you are coming to the party tomorrow.
- I'm not sure which care I should choose.
- Can you tell me where the books for the class are?
- I don't know if he enjoys hiking.
- Do you happen to know how much the computer costs?
- I'm not sure if they will attend the conference next month.