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Concourse 2

Indirect or embedded questions

embed

In some analyses, the term embedded question is reserved for the function of being oblique and more polite when asking a question and the term indirect question is used for reported questions.
This is not a necessary distinction because the forms are parallel but it is a useful one because the term indirect is often applied to reported speech and separating out the functions is useful when designing a teaching programme.


2

Two types of questions

In the guide to interrogatives on this site, 5 sorts of question are identified.  The following, however, only applies to two types of questions:

  1. Closed Yes / No / Maybe questions such as
        Have you spent all your money?
        He did it, didn't he?
    And alternative questions such as:
        Are you coming or not?
  2. Wh-questions such as
        Where are you going?
        How is this done?
        What do you want?
        Why did you do that?
        Who called?
        Who(m) did you ask?
        Which shop did you go to?

Both these sorts of questions can be formed as embedded questions or as indirect questions in reported speech.


cogs

The functions of indirect questions

Before we get to considering how indirect questions work syntactically, we need to ask what functions embedded or indirect questions realise.
Fundamentally, there are four discrete functions but the forms are parallel.

  1. Politeness tactics
    In many languages, direct questions such as:
        What's your address?
        What do you want?
        Do you want breakfast?
    etc.
    are perfectly polite.
    In English, when talking to people we don't know, such questions are usually avoided unless the questioner is in a more powerful position than the responder.  We may have, instead:
        Could you tell me what your current address is?
        Could you tell me what you want?
        Please let me know if you want breakfast
    For example, in a job interview, direct questions such as:
        What do you think you can you bring to the team?
    are tolerated but even in this setting, a more likely structure will be something like
        Can you tell us what you think you can bring to the team?
    Politeness tactics are often disguised as questions and, in fact, realise two different functions from questions which ask for information:
    1. Requests:
      Something like:
          Could you tell me what his address is?
      is not a question asking about the hearer's ability; it is a simple request for cooperation.
    2. Offers:
      Something like:
          Let me know if you want my help
      is also not a question; it's an offer to help.
    3. Advice:
      Something like:
          Couldn't you find out how long it will last?
      is not a question; it's advice.
  2. Orders and imperatives
    Questions can be embedded in imperatives so we get, for example:
        Find out when the train leaves
        Tell me what the cost will be
    and these can, of course, be softened when power relationships are equal so we can also have:
        Please be good enough to tell me when the train leaves
        I wonder if you can tell me what the cost will be
    and so on.
  3. Reference to a third person
    When we are unable to pose the question directly to a third person but are asking an intermediary, we often embed the question.  For example:
        Do you know if John drinks red or white wine usually?
        Does she need to know what time I'm arriving?
        Let me know whether she wants any help
    etc.
  4. Indirect or reported speech
    In reported speech any question will become embedded in a statement of what someone said so, instead of:
        *He asked what is my address?
    which is the form in many languages, English alters the syntax to produce:
        He asked me what my address is.
    That is not intuitive and causes learners considerable problems up to and including quite high levels of syntactical mastery.
    Reported speech, of course, also requires adjustments to pronouns, time adverbials and much else, not least tense forms but they are covered elsewhere in the guide to reported or indirect speech linked in the list of related guides at the end.  Such issues will not be considered here.

Only the first of these functions usually requires the use of a question form when the very common forms with can and could are used.  Politeness tactics do not always take that form as we shall see.

The syntax of such questions varies depending on the question type and we will take the issues one by one but include examples of all four functions because the forms are identical.


3

Embedded Yes / No / Maybe questions

These are open only to three sorts of answer, although the responder may well feel obliged to add further information immediately to clarify the response.  For example, the question:
    Do you want to eat?
can be responded to:

  1. positively with, e.g.:
        Yes
        Rather!
        What a good idea!
        Do I!?

    etc.
  2. or negatively with, e.g.:
        Not just now
        No thanks
        It's too early
        I'm not hungry
  3. or by temporising with, e.g.:
        I'm not sure
        Maybe
        If we must
        Ask me later

    etc.

The three functions of embedded Yes / No / Maybe questions involve the same syntactical choices.

Overwhelmingly, the choice is to use if or whether to form the embedded syntax, like this:

Politeness
A common way to form such questions is by using modal auxiliary verbs, especially can and could.  For example:
    Could you tell me if this train goes to London?
    Can you tell me whether I am on the right train?
but other forms are also possible, for example:
    I wonder if you know whether the I can use the car park
Imperative forms
As we saw above, such forms can be quite direct or softened for politeness.  For example:
    Tell me whether she will be here
    Let me know if you like it
    Say if it's OK
    Please inform me if you will be late
Reference to a third person
When access to a third person is unavailable we embed the question via an intermediary.  For example:
    Do you know if she will be coming?
    Let me know whether he wants my help
    Could you ask him if he can be here early?
Indirect speech
When reporting such questions a parallel syntax is used.  For example:
    She asked the guard whether the train went to London
    I asked if I could use the car park
    He wondered if she enjoyed the party
    I asked to be informed if she would be late
issue

Issues

There are two primary issues:

  1. Word ordering and syntax:
    English is slightly unusual in retaining (or substituting, if you prefer to look at it that way) a declarative word ordering and syntax when embedding the questions.  Although questions in English require either the inversion of subject and auxiliary verb as in, for example:
        Can I help
        Have you seen my pen?
    or the use of the do operator in present and past simple tenses as in, e.g.:
        Do you want some more?
        Did she talk to him?
    embedded questions do not follow these forms.  So:
    The direct question ... ... becomes... ... not ...
    Is this your jacket? Could you tell me whether this is your jacket? *Could you tell me whether is this your jacket?
    Was Jack at the meeting? Find out if Jack was at the meeting *Find out if was Jack at the meeting
    Did she see him? I wonder whether she saw him *I wonder did she see him
    Do you like the jacket? She asked him if he liked the jacket *She asked him if did he like the jacket
  2. The choice of if vs. whether
    It is often averred that the forms are interchangeable in reported and indirect questions but they are not.
    1. There is a difference between, for example
          Tell me if you need anything
      which means only tell me when and only when a need arises.  It is, in other words conditional on your needing something.  I only expect to hear from you if you do.
      However,
          Tell me whether you need anything
      is not contingent because you are to tell me in either case.  If you do not need something, you must tell me and if you do need something you must tell me.
      In other words, the conjunction whether is not conditional.  There is no contingency that needs to be satisfied.
      Using if can sometimes lead to ambiguity so, for example:
          Let me know me if he wants my help
      may be considered conditional or not and have two possible meanings:
          You are to tell me only if he wants my help
      or
          I want to know whether or not he wants my help
    2. The other issue is that when reporting verbalised questions, the use of either if or whether is allowed so we have, for example:
          "Can I come?" he asked
      may be reported as
          He asked whether he could come
      or as
          He asked if he could come.
      On the other hand, when we report internal thoughts such as:
           "Shall I go?" he asked himself
      we would normally allow only
          He wondered whether he would go
      and not
          *He wondered if he would go
      This is more of a tendency than an absolute rule.
    3. We also see a preference for whether when embedding or reporting alternative questions such as:
          Are you ready or not?
      which will usually be embedded or reported as
          Tell me whether you are ready or not
          Can you tell me whether you are ready or not?
          She asked me whether I was ready or not
      but not as:
          Tell me if you are ready or not
          Can you tell me if you are ready or not?
          She asked me if I was ready or not
      Again, the forms with if are not unheard of, just rare and slightly unnatural.

what

Embedded wh-questions

There are seven common wh-words which form normal, unembedded questions: who, what, why, when, which, where, how.
Syntactically, these all follow the same rules when they are embedded in any of the four functions we have seen above.
Like this:

Politeness
A common way to form such questions is by using modal auxiliary verbs, especially can and could.  For example:
    Could you tell me when the bus leaves?
    Can you tell me what program to use?
but other forms are also possible, for example:
    I wonder if you can let me know when the parcel arrives
    I hope you can explain why it is so urgent
Imperative forms
As we saw above, such forms can be quite direct or softened for politeness.  For example:
    Tell me when to go
    Let me know which you need
    Say where you left it
    Please inform me when the meeting breaks up
Reference to a third person
When access to a third person is unavailable we embed the question via an intermediary.  For example:
    Do you know what John wants?
    Let me know when she will be here
    Could you ask him why he was so late?
Indirect speech
When reporting such questions a parallel syntax is used.  For example:
    She asked the guard when the train went to London
    I asked why the room wasn't ready
    He wondered which case she should take
    I asked to be informed when the meeting broke up
issue

Issues

There are two issues embedded wh-questions.  The first is syntactical and important, the second slightly peripheral.

The first issue is the same as the first we encountered with closed questions: syntax.

We do not:

  1. Vary the word ordering so, for example:
    The direct question ... ... becomes... ... not ...
    Where is my jacket? Could you tell me where my jacket is? *Could you tell me where is my jacket?
    Why was he late? Find out why Jack was late *Find out why was Jack late
    Which car can he give us? Can you ask him which car he can give us? *Can you ask him which car can he give us?
    What have you seen? She asked him what he had seen *She asked him what had he seen
  2. Use the do / does / did operator with present simple and past simple verb forms so, for example:
    The direct question ... ... becomes... ... not ...
    How did she seem? Could you tell me how she seemed? *Could you tell me how did she seem?
    Why did he say that? Find out why he said that *Find out why did he say that
    Which car does he drive? Can you ask him which car he drives? *Can you ask him which car does he drive?
    What do you think? She asked him what he thought *She asked him what did he think

It bears repeating that this reversion to a declarative statement word order in English is not something that happens in a wide range of other languages, so the forms do not come easily and errors will occur very frequently at all levels.

The second issue is that if the direct question is formed with who, which or what with the verb be as part of the predicate, it is possible to disturb the word order outlined above.  For example:

Who was the winner? She asked me who the winner was or She asked me who was the winner
Which is the best? Can you tell me which the best is? or Can you tell me which is the best?
What were his friends doing? Do you know what his friends were doing? or Do you know what were his friends doing?

Presenting this small issue to learners who are already struggling to get the usual word ordering of embedded questions right is probably perilous.


explain

Explaining embedded and indirect questions

The main issue with indirect and embedded questions in English is syntactical rather than semantic.  All languages can embed questions for effect but few cultures are so obsessive about using the politeness tactics of which Anglophone nations are so fond.
How questions are reported is also very variable across languages with many reserving a special tense for these kinds of grammatical functions and some using subjunctive forms and a bewildering array of other syntactical phenomena.

The first issue is often cultural.  While it may be perfectly acceptable and comprehensible to go to an information desk and say:
    Where is the toilet?
it is usually more effective to ask something like:
    Can you tell me where the toilet is, please?

The second issue is setting the forms in a wider picture of indirect speech.  Indirect speech in English often requires quite complex alterations to adverbials of place and time, tense forms and pronoun structures so reporting:
    "Please would you put these tools back into the garden shed over there before Monday", he said
is no mean matter and may result in:
    He asked us politely to return the tools we had with us to the garden shed on the right of his house before the following Monday.
Reported questions, on the other hand, are rarely so complex (although tense shifting is common) and, if learners are already familiar with the politeness tactic of embedding a question, it is a useful way in to a complex grammatical area.

nouns

Nouns and noun phrases

One way to conceptualise how embedded and indirect questions work in English is to explain how they are parallel with the simpler forms.
The grammatical structure of ordinary questions is fundamentally either:

  1. Auxiliary verb (or be and have as lexical verbs) + subject + main verb + noun phrase (with transitive verbs).
    For example:
    Auxiliary etc. Subject Main verb Noun phrase
    Can you see the house?
    Has she explained the issue?
    Is he taking his medicine
    Have you seen my keys?
    Were they happy?
    Have you (got) enough cash?
    Will they arrive?
    or
  2. Do / Did / Does + subject + verb + noun phrase (with transitive verbs)
    For example:
    Form of do Subject Main verb Noun phrase
    Do you like the house?
    Did she explain the issue?
    Does that make a difference
    Did they speak?  

What can happen with questions is that the simple noun phrases we have above are replaced by clauses acting as noun phrases (nominalised clauses) so we get, instead:

for example:
Auxiliary etc. Subject Main verb Noun phrase
Can you see what I want?
Has she explained how to change the fuse?
Is he enjoying being in London?
Have you seen where he lives these days?
Have you (got) the time you need?
Do you like living in such a big city?
Did she explain how to change the fuse?
Did they say who was coming?

Once learners can see that the clauses are acting simple as object noun phrases, much becomes clearer (or can do).  So for example, if learners can successfully form:
    Can you tell me the story?
    Let me know the truth
    Do you know the right road?
etc.
They can also form:
    Can you tell me why he did that?
    Let me know when you are coming?
    Do you know how to open this?
because the clauses in black are nominalised and acting as simple nouns.


horizon

Widening horizons: what to teach

Too often, the teaching of embedded and indirect questions starts and stops with something like:
    Can tell me ...
    Could you tell me ...
That's short-changing learners somewhat because, as we see above, there are many more ways of structuring an embedded question.  Because the structures which follows the introductory signal remain constant, other ways of leading into an embedded question are easy to teach and significantly broaden learners' ability to be precise, deferential or insistent and clear.
For example, instead of the modal auxiliary verb, can / could we may have:

Please say ...
I wonder if you can tell me ...
I'd be grateful if you would tell me ...
Do you know ...
Find out ...
Discover ...
See ...
I wonder if you know ...
I want to know ...
Let me know ...
Just let me know ...
Tell me ...
Do you happen to know ...
Would it be possible for you to find out ...
I hope you might be able to tell me ...
You will say ... , won't you?
I expect you to tell me ...
I demand to know ...
and so on.
In any presentation above quite low levels, alternatives to the common Can you / Could you structure ought to be considered.
talking

Context and setting

Please explain how this helps  

Because many of the alternatives are even more polite than the commoner forms (or sometimes less polite when they are imperatives), it is important to set the context and identify the roles of the participants clearly or learners may well be lured into producing stylistic error, of course.
Embedded and indirect questions are routinely used between strangers, so common contexts include many service encounters.  When embedded questions are used in imperatives, the power relationships need to be borne in mind:

Asking questions at information desks
Interviews (jobs, TV, radio etc.)
Asking for information from hotel receptionists
Asking directions in the street
Getting customers' details (to book tickets / car rentals / rooms etc.)
Asking for instructions
Giving instructions in work settings
Setting up classroom tasks
etc.



Related guides
nominalised clauses for an alternative way to look at reported or embedded questions inter alia
reported or indirect speech for the in-service guide to the area which includes some consideration of reported questions and reporting verbs
a simpler guide for the guide to indirect questions in the initial plus section of the site
reported speech (essentials) for the simpler guide to the area in the initial plus section
interrogatives for the guide to questions in general