Indirect Questions

Have a look at this conversation.

Me: Excuse me. Could you tell me where the nearest station is?
Person in the street: Certainly. It’s along that road on the right.
Me: Thank you. And do you know if there’s a supermarket near here?
Person in the street: Yes, there’s one next to the station.
Me: Thank you very much for your help.

Indirect Questions
Indirect Questions

I use indirect questions when I’m asking for help in the street, because they are very polite. Indirect questions start with a phrase like ‘could you tell me…’ or ‘do you know…’. For example: 

Direct question: Where is the bank?
Indirect question: Could you tell me where the bank is?

Notice that in the indirect question I put the verb (‘is’) after the subject (‘the bank’), in the same way as I do with a normal positive sentence (‘the bank is over there’), but in the direct question I put the verb ‘is’ before the subject ‘the bank’. This is called inversion, and it is used to make direct questions in many verb tenses in English, but we don’t use inversion in indirect questions. This is very similar to the grammar of reported questions. However, we use indirect questions in a different way from reported questions. Indirect questions are a way of being polite. They are very, very common in English, especially when you’re talking to someone you don’t know.

‘Yes / No’ Questions

To make an indirect ‘yes / no’ question, we use ‘if’ and the word order of a normal positive sentence. This is the same as for reported ‘yes / no’ questions. On the other hand, we don’t usually need to ‘backshift’ (change the tense of the verb) as we do with reported questions.

Of course, most tenses make questions by using ‘inversion’ (changing the word order). To change from a direct ‘yes / no’ question with inversion to an indirect question, you add ‘if’ and change the word order back to a normal positive sentence. You don’t need to use inversion.

‘Yes / no’ questions for tenses with inversion:

Verb TenseDirect QuestionIndirect Question
Present
simple with ‘be’
Is he Spanish?Can you tell me if he is Spanish?
Present
continuous
Is the restaurant
closing now?
Can you tell me if the restaurant is closing now?
Past simple with ‘be’Was he late for the
meeting?
Can you tell me if he was late for the meeting?
Past
continuous
Were you watching
TV at 3pm?
Can you tell me if you were
watching TV at 3pm?
Present
perfect
Has Lucy been to
Mexico?
Can you tell me if Lucy has been to Mexico?
Present
perfect
continuous
Has she been living
here long?
Can you tell me if she has been
living here long?
Past perfectHad she found this job when she moved
here?
Can you tell me if she had found this job when she moved here?
Past perfect
continuous
Had she been living here long when she met
you?
Can you tell me if she had been living here long when she met
you?
Future
simple with ‘will’
Will she start her new
job next week?
Can you tell me if she will start her new job next week?
Future simple with ‘going to’Is it going to rain later?Can you tell me if it is going to
rain later?
Future
continuous
Will Lisa be meeting
the boss later?
Can you tell me if Lisa will be
meeting the boss later?
Future
perfect
Will he have finished
the report by tonight?
Can you tell me if he will have
finished the report by tonight?
Future
perfect
continuous
Will he have been
studying French for
twenty years when he
retires?
Can you tell me if he will have
been
studying French for twenty
years when he retires?
Modal
verbs
Should we start now?Can you tell me if we should
start now?

‘Yes / no’ questions with tenses that use ‘do / does / did’:

Sometimes you want to make an indirect question using the present simple of any verb except ‘be’ or the past simple of any verb except ‘be’. These tense make direct questions by using ‘do / does / did’. When we want to make indirect ‘yes / no’ questions using these tenses, we need ‘if’ and we don’t need ‘do / does / did’.

Verb TenseDirect
Question
Indirect Question
Present simple with any
verb
except ‘be’
Does
David
live
in
London?
Can you tell me if David lives
in London?
Past simple with any
verb except ‘be’
Did Amanda
call
John
yesterday?
Can you tell me if
Amanda
called John yesterday?

‘Wh’ Questions

In the same way as with reported ‘wh’ questions, we use the question word and the word order of a normal positive sentence to make indirect ‘wh’ questions. We don’t need to use inversion. Again, we also don’t usually need to ‘backshift’ (change the tense of the verb) as we do with reported questions.

To change a direct question to an indirect question for tenses that make questions using inversion, you just add ‘if’ and change the word order back to a normal positive sentence.

‘Wh’ questions for tenses with inversion:

Verb TenseDirect QuestionIndirect Question
Present
simple
with ‘be’
Why is he unhappy?Can you tell me why he is
unhappy?
Present
continuous
When is the restaurant closing?Can you tell me when the
restaurant is closing?
Past simple with
‘be’
Why was he late for the meeting?Can you tell me why he was late
for the meeting?
Past
continuous
What were you doing
at 3pm?
Can you tell me what you were
doing at 3pm?
Present
perfect
Where has Lucy been?Can you tell me where Lucy has
been?
Present
perfect
continuous
How long has she
been living here?
Can you tell me how long she has
been living here?
Past perfectWhy had she quit her
job before she moved here?
Can you tell me why she had quit her job before she moved here?
Past
perfect
continuous
How long had she been
living here when she
met you?
Can you tell me how long she
had been living here when she
met you?
Future simple with
‘will’
When will she start her new job?Can you tell me when she will
start her new job?
Future simple with
‘going to’
When is it going to rain?Can you tell me when it is going to rain?
Future
continuous
What time will Lisa be meeting the boss?Can you tell me what time Lisa will be meeting the boss?
Future
perfect
When will he have
finished the report?
Can you tell me when he will
have finished the report?
Future
perfect
continuous
How long will he have been studying French
when
he retires?
Can you tell me how long he
will have been studying French
when he retires?
Modal
verbs
What should we do
now?
Can you tell me what we should do now?

‘Wh’ questions for tenses with ‘do / does / did’:

Sometimes you want to make an indirect ‘wh’ question using the present simple of any verb except ‘be’ or the past simple of any verb except ‘be’. Usually these tenses make questions by using ‘do / does / did’. However, when we want to make indirect ‘wh’ questions using these tenses, we don’t need ‘do / does / did’. Instead, we use a question word and then normal positive sentence word order.

Verb TenseDirect QuestionIndirect
Question
Present simple with any
verb
except ‘be’
Where does David
live?
Can you tell me
where
David lives?
Past simple with any
verb
except ‘be’
Why did
Amanda
call John yesterday?
Can you tell me why
Amanda
called John yesterday?

Common Problems

It can be difficult to remember to put the verb after the subject, especially when the indirect question is in the present simple tense of ‘be’. For example, we need to say:

Could you tell me where the station is?

NOT:

Could you tell me where is the station?

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