Indirect Question

by Craig Shrives

What Is an Indirect Question? (with Examples)

An indirect question is a question embedded inside a statement (i.e., a declarative sentence) or another question (i.e., an interrogative sentence).

Let's start with a direct question:
  • Do you like cheese?
Here it is as an indirect question in a statement:
  • She asked whether I liked cheese.
The word whether could be replaced with if in this example. Read more about "if and whether."
indirect question

Easy Examples of Indirect Questions

An indirect question can be embedded in a statement, another question, or an order.
  • I wonder whether Anne is happy.
  • (The embedded direct question is "Is Anne happy?". This is a direct question within a statement, i.e., within a declarative sentence.)
  • Do you know if anyone was listening?
  • (The embedded direct question is "Was anyone listening?". This is a direct question within a question, i.e., within an interrogative sentence.)
  • Please find out what time the train is due.
  • (The embedded direct question is "What time is the train due?". This is a direct question within an order, i.e., within an imperative sentence.)

Real-Life Examples of Indirect Questions

  • I wonder whether other dogs think poodles are members of a weird religious cult. (Comedian Rita Rudner)
  • Does anyone know if Lamborghini makes wheelchair vehicles? (American footballer Steve Gleason, who is battling Lou Gehrig's disease)
  • In order to know what he is, a man must first know what the sum of this mysterious humanity is, a humanity made up of people who, like himself, do not understand what they are. (Russian author Leo Tolstoy)

More about Indirect Questions

When the direct question is a yes-no question, the indirect question will start with if or whether.
  • I'm asking if you are cold.
  • I'm asking whether you are cold.
  • (The embedded direct question is "Are you cold?". This is a yes-no question.)

Indirect Questions Are Worded Like Statements not Questions.

When the direct question starts with a question word like how, what, when, where, which, who, whose, or why (called interrogative pronouns or interrogative adjectives), the indirect question will start with the question word, but the word order is like a statement not like a question.
  • I'm asking what the time is.
  • (The embedded direct question is "What time is it?". Notice that the indirect question has the word order "the time is" (i.e., subject + verb) not "is the time" (i.e., verb + subject). In other words, an indirect question has the same word order as a statement, not a question.)
  • I'm asking where you are going.
  • (The embedded direct question is "Where are you going?". The word order for the indirect question is "you are going", i.e., subject + verb.)
  • I don't know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be. (American president Abraham Lincoln)

Indirect Questions Are Noun Clauses.

Indirect questions are classified as noun clauses. (A noun clause is a multi-word noun that features a subject and a verb.)
indirect question noun clause
Read more about noun clauses. For native English speakers, there are three common issues related to indirect questions:

(Issue 1) Don't use a question mark with a non-question.

By far the most common mistake with indirect questions is using a question mark at the end of a sentence that isn't a question.
  • She needs to know where you're going?
  • Tell the staff if you feel cold?
  • Mark is trying to determine whether he's allergic to cats?
  • (These are not questions. There should be no question marks.)
Before using a question mark, make sure the whole sentence is a question.
  • Does she need to know where you're going?
  • Will you tell the staff if you feel cold?
  • Is Mark trying to determine whether he's allergic to cats?

(Issue 2) Use "whether" unless you're presenting a condition.

These two sentences are both grammatically sound, but they mean different things.
  • Tell the staff if you need a seat.
  • (This means tell the staff only if you need a seat. In other words, needing a seat is a condition that needs to be true before the staff are told. This is called a conditional sentence.)
  • Tell the staff whether you need a seat.
  • (This means tell the staff about your seating needs. There are two alternatives: needing a seat and not needing a seat. The staff are to be told in either case. In other words, there is no condition that needs to be true.)
Often "if" and "whether" are interchangeable when heading an indirect question, but bear this point in mind when choosing between them. Remember that if you're stating a condition, use "if." If you're not, use "whether." Read more about conditional sentences.

(Issue 3) Get the word order right.

Remember that the word order in an indirect question is the same as for a declarative sentence (i.e., a statement) and not an interrogative sentence (i.e., a question). For example:

Word Order in a Question:
  • Where are you?
  • (The word order is verb-subject: verb (are) then subject (you).)
Word Order in a Statement:
  • You are there.
  • (The word order is subject-verb: subject (you) then verb (are).)
Word Order in an Indirect Question:
  • I want to know where you are.
  • (The word order is subject-verb: subject (you) then verb (are). It's the same word order as a statement.)
  • I want to know where are you.

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See Also

What are declarative sentences? What are interrogative sentences? What are direct questions? Using if and whether What are interrogative pronouns? What are interrogative adjectives? Glossary of grammatical terms

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