Asking questions in English is pretty basic for ESL students.
Even beginning level students are familiar with how to ask yes/no and informational question in English. Direct questions, those that stand on their own, should be nothing new to the ESL teacher and student, but not all question in English are direct. Indirect questions, or embedded questions, are more complicated ways of asking for the same information, and once your students are at the advanced level they should be able to recognize and use indirect questions. Here is what you and your students need to know about these complex question structures.
Two Types of Indirect Questions
English has two different types of indirect questions. The first type occur in reported speech – when someone is relaying something that was said at an earlier time. The second type of indirect questions are embedded questions. These questions appear in dependent clauses within a larger statement or question. Though the two types of indirect questions are similar, they are not exactly the same.
Reported speech occurs when a person tells what someone else said without using a direct quotation. In the example below, the first statement is a direct quotation. The second is reported speech.
- “I will be there,” Mark said.
- Mark said that he would be there.
Questions can also be changed from a direct quotations to reported speech. When they are, they are considered reported questions.
- “Will you be there?” Mark asked.
- Mark asked me if I would be there.
To change a direct question to a reported question, your students should make these six changes.
Often in reported questions, the pronouns need to be changed. Note in the previous example “you’ is changed to “me” because Mark’s conversation partner is reporting his question. This rule is not universal, however. See the following example.
- “Will you be there?” Mark asked Sally.
- Mark asked Sally if she would be there.
In this case, “you” must be changed to “she” because Sally is not the person reporting the question. To correctly change pronouns in reported questions, your students will have to determine who is reporting the question and who the question is about.
Change Context Expressions
Similar to change in pronouns, reported questions may need changes in context expressions. These expressions communicate when and where an activity takes place. Note the context expressions in the following question.
- “Will you be here tomorrow?”
When reporting the question, the time and location at the moment are important. For example, if the reporting happens in the same context as the original question, the reported question is as follows.
- He asked if you would be here tomorrow.
However, if the reporting happens at a different location and a different time, the reported question may read as follows.
- He asked if she would be there yesterday.
To make these changes correctly, students must determine the context of the original question as well as the context of the reported question.
Change Tense When Necessary.
Tenses often change in reported questions, and this change is called backshifting. Backshifting depends on the tense of the quoted question as well as when the reported question takes place. For a brief explanation of how to backshift in reported questions, see this summary on My English Pages.
Change Word Order
In direct questions, subject and verb are inverted. For reported questions, the subject and verb are not inverted.
- “Are you speaking English?”
- He asked if we were speaking English.
Use an IF Clause When Necessary
The question words (who, what, where, when, why, how) stay the same in reported questions, but yes/no questions are changed to an if clause.
- “Where are you going?”
- He asked where I was going.
- “Are you going?”
- He asked if I was going.
While direct questions use a question mark at the end of the sentence, reported questions end with a period.
- “Did you hear?”
- He asked if I heard.
To practice reported question with your class, try this simple exercise. Arrange your class in a circle, and have one person ask a question of the second person on his left. That person acts as though she didn’t hear the question clearly and responds with, “What?” The person between them then repeats the question as a reported question. For example, one round might look like the following.
- Student A: What are you doing tonight?
- Student C: What?
- Student B: He asked what you were doing tonight.
- Student C: I’m studying for a test.
Continue around the circle until everyone has played each part in the dialogue.
Embedded questions, though similar to reported questions are not the same. Embedded questions are questions in dependent clauses associated with a main clause statement or question. The following are embedded questions.
- I don’t know if he will come.
- Do you think he will come?
- I wonder where she lives.
- Have you seen where she lives?
Like reported questions, embedded questions follow the same grammatical patterns.
Embedded questions follow the same word order as reported questions.
- Do you think he will come?
- Not: Do you think will he come?
Embedded questions do use backshifting when necessary.
- I wonder where Jamie has gone.
- Not: I wonder where Jamie did go.
Embedded questions use an if clause to introduce embedded yes/no questions.
- Do you know if we have a test tomorrow?
- Not: Do you know do we have a test tomorrow?
Embedded questions end in a period and not a question mark when they are part of an overall statement. It is also possible, however, for embedded questions to end with a question mark if they are part of an overall question.
- I wonder where he went.
- Do you know where he went?
To practice embedded questions, try this simple exercise in which students ask some of life’s big questions. Have students take turns sharing what they wonder with the class. Each student should start with a general statement. She should then ask her question to a specific member of the class. Student examples might look like the following.
- I wonder why the sky is blue. Do you know why the sky is blue?
- I wonder who invented cheese. Do you know who invented cheese?
- I wonder what movie I would like best. Do you know what movie I would like best?
Though they may seem complicated at first, indirect questions can become a natural part of your students’ speech.
Beginners may not be ready for this complicated structure, but intermediate and advanced students should be able to use them in their everyday speech.
What are your favorite activities for practicing indirect questions?