Grammar nonsense 5 (and some curiosities): indirect questions

I can’t quite decide if the EFL view of indirect questions is pure foolishness or more a question of a missed opportunity. I do actually think it is more the latter, but when you start thinking about these things, it’s difficult not to see the absurdity of what we say.  So first the nonsense – or the half truths, if we want to be charitable.

What we tell students about indirect questions

Coursebook 1: Indirect questions use the same order as the positive and there is no do/does/did. We often make direct questions into indirect to make them sound ‘softer’ or more polite.

Coursebook 2Indirect questions are more polite than direct questions. You often use them when you talk to strangers or people you don’t know well. You tend to begin a conversation with indirect questions then continue with direct questions [This is followed by a table showing the transformations from direct to indirect questions and missing do/does/did etc.].

Grammar book: Indirect questions have a different word order from direct question and no question marks.We don’t use do in indirect questions. With indirect yes/no questions, we use if or whether. They mean the same.

Forgetting that there is is a direct question before an ‘indirect’ question.

Now, I can almost hear you say what exactly is wrong with that, then! Hey, I can almost hear myself saying it! But then I ask myself ‘What do you mean by indirect questions have a different order and don’t use do / did etc.’ and look at some actual examples of real English!

  • Do you know what time it is?
  • Did you ask when we’ll get the results?
  • Do you remember where I put it?
  • Do you think you could possibly give me a hand?
  • Does she know who you are?

Don’t all these ‘indirect questions’ actually contain do, does, or did? Don’t they also have the normal word order of questions?! Oh, Andrew, now you’re just being obstreperous, as my mother used to say. The Do you know is not really the question, it’s the what time, the when etc. That’s the indirect question.

I would suggest that this message is a bit of a problem. It comes across like we’re saying that the Do you know bit is not actually important or really a question in itself. We are basically just asking a normal question and for the sake of politeness we add these starters which have the inconvenient effect of changing the word order of the question you really want to ask. This seems a slightly perverse way of viewing things. It’s what I might call the transformation fallacy, which we have also seen in reported speech: the idea that when we speak, we take a ‘base’ form and make a transformation in our minds to create a new meaning, when in actual fact what we do (I think) is go directly for whatever form we want because that’s the meaning we actually want to convey. In this case, that means what we want to ask first is Do you know, Did you ask, Do you think, Do you mind, etc. That’s important not only in terms of reducing confusion for students about the use of auxiliaries and question order, but also in terms of thinking about why we use ‘indirect questions’.

Did you know we ask indirect questions to be polite? Really?

Seen from this point of view, there is nothing really to learn about when we use indirect questions other than understanding the meanings of the words know, ask, think, mind, remember, etc. As with all (?) other verbs, when we ask a question with these words, the meaning doesn’t change: we want to know if a person knows, thinks, minds, remembers, etc. It’s NOTHING directly to do with politeness or making things softer. That is simply connected to the particular verb used (e.g. mind).

I don’t ask the person in the street Do you know what the time is as opposed to What’s the time in order to be polite! I ask because I don’t know if they know and I want to show them that I don’t necessarily expect them to have an answer. In fact, if I see they have a watch, and I want to be polite, I am just as likely to ask directly Could you tell me the time? – and that wouldn’t be seen as odd or impolite.

In terms of politeness, Could you is perfectly sufficient, unless we believe we are putting someone out and that the person may well not be able to do something (Do you think you could give me a lift to the station?). In fact, using an ‘indirect question’ could also be seen as sarcastic and rude: We all know you like the sound of your own voice. but do you think you could possibly give someone else a chance to speak?

Does she know who you are? No, sadly.

There are, of course, millions of instances where we ask ‘indirect’ questions that very clearly have nothing to do with politeness. The last question above is a good (though personally difficult) example of this. I have been asked quite a few times Does she know who you are? because my mother has dementia. This is not a genuine question about me (who are you?) made indirect for politeness. It is simply a question to get a fact – a yes/no question, actually, that does not use ‘if or whether’. (I guess someone could ask Do you know if she knows you, but that’s an odd question to ask, because obviously I know if she does or not. I’m not the one with dementia after all!).

Are you sure you need if or whether for an indirect yes/no question?

Furthermore, that rule ‘With indirect yes/no questions we use if or whether’, actually depends on the verb you are using.  Could you open the door for me?  is a yes/no question. However, the ‘indirect’ ‘Do you think you could open the door for me? cannot use if/whether. The same would be true of I reckon / do you reckon, I guess, I suppose, and various other verbs. And this is the key thing, I think. Really the grammar we are focusing on here is verbs that are typically followed by a clause and the words that link those verbs and the clause. The way the verb and clause link depends on the verb you are using.

The real grammar: verbs followed by a clause

Sometimes we say the verb is followed by a ‘that’ clause and a dictionary such as Macmillan often shows the entry as think (that). However, it’s far far more common not to use any word to link with the clause. Have a Google fight with these pairs of sentences:

  • Do you think he’s lying?         Do you think that he’s lying?
  • I think she knows.                    I think that she knows.

Obviously, there are many verbs with a similar pattern – remember, forget, say, claim, admit, etc.

With some verbs such as know, wonder, remember, etc. you can link with a question word / phrase such as where, what time, how long, etc., or if / whether.

  • Do you know how much it’ll cost?
  • Did you ask if they could give us lift?
  • I wonder where he is now.
  • I’ve already forgotten what he taught me
  • I don’t know how much more I can take.
  • I’m not sure if I can come yet.

Some of these are questions, of course, and some of these are not, but when they are created as questions, the patterns after the verb are the same – obviously. The question formation of the verb itself also follows the normal rule of questions, as I said at the beginning.

A solution disconnected from the problem is no solution at all

So why all the fuss? Apart from the possible transformation fallacy mentioned earlier, it probably comes about because students do sometimes use question inversion after these verbs. In response to that, teachers notice the error. They correct it and then start teaching about it, perhaps in an effort to prevent it from happening again. Then writers start including it in their coursebooks, but to do so it needs to be presented as a thing – indirect questions – and so now we have to treat it like other bits of grammar – as having a particular form and function – and we lose sight of the underlying grammar. Is that really a good idea? You will get from this post that I don’t think it is. It seems to me that it brings a certain amount of confusion for very little gain.

Showing the bigger picture – moving beyond indirect questions

However – and this is the missed opportunity – it also seems to me that we are failing to teach these verb patterns fully and consistently. While we teach about verbs followed by –ing or infinitives at quite an early stage (like doing / want to do), I don’t recall seeing much focus on verb + clause – maybe because ‘clause’ is a bit more technical than –ing or infinitive. Yet verbs with these patterns are some of the most common in English and we could easily show patterns without using any jargon: for example, through exemplification tables, translation and students trying to generate their own questions and sentences. Understanding the shared patterns of these verbs might also help avoid spending time banging on not just about indirect questions as some oddly separate piece of grammar, but also the ‘rules’ of questions in reported speech. It is curious that Did you ask or did they say rarely feature as stems in indirect question exercises, maybe because they appear to be reporting rather than being indirect questions to be polite. Yet the verb pattern grammar is the same.

Finally, I should say, that thinking about this issue recently and looking at various coursebooks and grammars, one did stand out  – and  it was Martin Parrot’s Grammar for English Language Teachers. While he refers to the term noun-clause, which I personally don’t find the best description, in all other ways he did much to clarify my vaguer thoughts on the matter and I once again doff my hat to his clarity and good sense.

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6 Responses

  1. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Andrew,
    I ‘taught’ indirect questions at the beginning of this year, and my students still struggle with them as we come to the end of the year. One of the big problems they have is that the ‘stems’ all seem to be interchangeable as far as they’re concerned, so there’s no real different between ‘Do you mind telling me’ and ‘Do you know’ for example. Reading your post clarifies this aspect of indirect questions in a way I’d never considered before, and I do believe I shall approach it differently in the future. Thank you!

  2. Silvia Cortese says:

    Thank you very much, Andrew, for an informative post that goes in the direction of simplifying instead of complicating grammar. A direction I’ve recently taken myself.
    I am sorry about your mother.

    • hugh dellar says:

      I think both Andrew and I have found that the longer we teach, and the more of an understanding we get of the subtleties and complexities of language, the more we have come to feel that in the end it’s input, exposure and noticing that really affects interlanguage, not lengthy explanations. Life’s complicated enough already, let’s not make learning more tricky than it needs to be, eh!

      • Silvia Cortese says:

        Hi Hugh,
        Agreed! I’m also sort of surprised because this desire to simplify has arisen naturally over this past year or so. It’s not like I had planned it, it just happened. Cool! So please keep these grammar nonsense posts coming. 🙂

        • hugh dellar says:

          Will do,. but probably not before the autumn as we’re mad busy with summer school here at the moment.

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