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Direct and indirect questions

When asking for information in English you can use direct and indirect questions. There are differences in sentence structure and levels of politeness and formality.

In English, a basic question can be formed using either an auxiliary verb or a question word.

For example:

Does he like swimming? (Auxiliary verb)

Where is the library? (Question word)

These are both examples of direct questions.

However, in English there are situations where it can be considered impolite to ask a direct question so we might ask an indirect question.

Whether we use direct and indirect questions depends on the situation, who we are talking to and what we are talking about. We tend to use direct questions with people we know well, in more informal situations and / or when the topic is not ‘sensitive’. Indirect questions are often used when talking to someone we don’t know well, in formal / professional situations, and / or where the topic might be ‘sensitive’.

Indirect questions are a little more formal and polite. We use them when talking to a person we don’t know very well, or in professional situations.

Compare the following direct and indirect questions:

When can we discuss this problem? – Direct question which in some cases is not very polite; e.g. when asking your boss to discuss a payment problem.

Would it be possible to discuss this problem soon? – Indirect question which is considered more polite; e.g. a politer way of stating that there is a problem you want to talk about.

Here are some ways of asking indirect questions. NOTE: some indirect questions are technically not questions at all – they are simply a way to encourage a response from the person we are talking too.

Direct question Indirect question
How old are you? Would you mind telling me how old you are?
Where’s the bank? Could you tell me where the bank is?
Why are they late? I wonder why they are late?
What time is it? Do you have any idea what time it is?
Help me! Is there any chance you could help me?
Who’s that? Do you happen to know who that is?


Grammar differences in direct and indirect questions

There are three important grammatical changes between direct and indirect sentences.

1. When we start using an indirect question form (such as those on the right hand side of the table above), the word order is the same as a positive statement, not a question.

Direct question Indirect question
What is his name? Do you know what his name is?NOT Do you know what is his name?
What are you doing? Can you tell me what you are doing?NOT Can you tell me what are you doing?

2. If the direct question uses the auxiliary verb ‘do’ (i.e. does, did, do), it is left out of the indirect question.

Direct question Indirect question
Where does she live? Do you know where she lives?NOT Do you know where she does live?
Who did she work for? Can you tell me who she worked for?NOT Can you tell me who she did work for?

3. If the direct question can be answered with ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, the indirect question needs ‘if’ or ‘whether’.

Direct question Indirect question
Is she coming back soon? Do you know if she is coming back soon?
Have you seen this man before? Can you tell me whether you have seen this man before?


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