Indirect Questions – Make Requests and Offer Subtle Suggestions

Do you happen to know what time it is?

I was wondering if you’d help me move next week.

Could you tell me where the nearest station is?

Notice anything interesting about these sentences?

That’s right – they’re questions hiding within other questions or statements.

If you’ve ever missed answering a question because the question was actually hidden within a statement or another question, then this video will help.

In this video, you’ll learn how to ask indirect questions, which we also call embedded questions.

Learning to ask indirect questions will help you make requests and offer subtle suggestions in a tactful, diplomatic way, while still sounding completely natural.

Let’s get started!


Why We Ask Indirect Questions

First things first, let’s talk about why we ask indirect questions.

Let me ask you this:

How do you feel when you have to ask someone for a favor, check on the status of a project that’s overdue, or make a somewhat critical observation?

If you’re like most people, including me, you probably feel a little uncomfortable.

You may be worried about hearing “no,” or getting a negative reaction, or even having your idea be rejected.

Or you might feel like you’re inconveniencing the other person.

Indirect questions create a little distance from what you want or need from the other person.

This makes requests more polite, observations less confrontational, and suggestions more of a strong nudge rather than overt criticism.


Situations When We Use Indirect Questions

Let’s talk about some situations where it’s common to use indirect questions.

Besides sounding more polite, indirect questions help the other person excuse any interruption or inconvenience.

That’s why we often use indirect questions when asking a stranger for information like directions or the time, or when we request something from a server or bartender in a busy restaurant, or when we talk to a receptionist, secretary, or customer service representative.

We also use them when asking a friend or colleague for a favor that requires extra effort or a time commitment.

Let’s return to the questions we started out with:

  • Do you happen to know what time it is?
  • I was wondering if you’d help me move next week.
  • Could you tell me where the nearest station is?

These indirect questions show you understand what you’re asking for and that you appreciate their time.

Similarly, you can make more subtle suggestions using indirect questions.

If you’re talking to someone who has yet to complete a report, you can ask something like, “I was wondering if the report was ready yet,” instead of asking, “Is the report ready yet?”

Of course, you will find yourself in situations where you need to be more direct.

But in many cases, these indirect questions get your point across while still sounding tactful and diplomatic.


How to Create Indirect Questions

Now let’s talk about how to create these indirect questions.

Even though we’re calling them indirect questions, it’s important to remember that they may also take the form of indirect statements.

(You’ll get to practice both with these examples.)

Indirect questions have two parts:

  • The first is the polite question or indirect statement used to introduce your question.
  • The second is your actual question, hidden or embedded inside.

Let’s look at these parts in more detail.

As you’ve learned from your experience, or this video on how to sound more polite, we often use modal verbs like “can,” “could,” and “would” when making requests.

For this reason, we often use them when asking indirect questions.

It’s a way of asking permission to continue your request.

In addition, we use verbs like “know” and “remember” to start requests where we’re not sure the other person will be able to help us.

It’s a way to show them that it’s okay to tell us that they can’t help.


Questions That Introduce Indirect Questions

Here are some common questions used to introduce indirect questions:

  • Could I ask…?
  • Can you check…?
  • Could you tell me…?
  • Can you tell me…?
  • Would you mind explaining…?
  • Would you mind repeating…?
  • Would you mind clarifying…?
  • Do you know…?
  • Can you remember…?
  • Do you remember…?
  • Do you have any idea…?
  • Do you happen to know…?
  • Would you happen to know…?

Did you hear anything interesting about my intonation when I was asking those questions?

Don’t worry – we’ll talk more about intonation in indirect questions in just a moment.


Statements That Introduce Indirect Questions

Let’s move on to statements that we use to introduce indirect questions.

Besides these polite leading questions, you can also use common expressions that show hesitation and uncertainty about the question that follows.

As you notice, we often add additional language or change the verb to the past tense or even the past continuous in order to show even more hesitation about the request that follows.

In a way, this helps us distance ourselves from the uncomfortable or inconvenient request.

Here are common statements that introduce indirect questions:

  • I want to know….
  • I wanted to know….
  • I was asking myself….
  • I was asking [a friend/colleague/family member]….
  • I wonder….
  • I was wondering….
  • We were wondering…
  • I want to find out….
  • We need to find out….
  • I’d like to find out….
  • I don’t know….
  • I’m not sure….
  • Let’s ask….
  • Let me know….
  • I’d like to ask….
  • I’d like to check….

Once again, did you notice anything special about my intonation in these statements?

This questioning intonation helps emphasize the uncertainty that I’m not sure how the person will respond to my request.


How to Structure Indirect Questions

Finally, we can talk about the grammar structure for these indirect questions.

After you’ve introduced your actual question with a leading question or indirect statement, you can finally ask what you’ve been wanting to ask.

If your indirect question is an information question or “wh-” question, then you’ll simply start with the question word: who, what, where, when, why, how, or any of the variations.

If you’re asking a yes/no question as your indirect question, then you’ll start with the words “if,” “whether,” or “whether or not.” All of them are equally fine.

The most important thing to remember with indirect questions is the word order after the question word.

Since the indirect question is actually a noun clause, you’ll need to put the subject first, followed by the verb.

Remember, you’ve already asked your question in the first part of the sentence, so you don’t need to use question order again.


Intonation in Indirect Questions

When asking indirect questions, pay attention to your intonation.

If the first part of your question is a yes/no question, like, “Could you tell me…?”, “Do you happen to know….?”, you want to use rising intonation, just like we do on normal yes/no questions.

This can feel a little strange if you’re asking an information question afterwards.

For example: Could you tell me where the nearest station is?

It seems like you should be using falling intonation, like we would use for information questions.

However, the entire question is technically a yes/no question: Could you tell me where the nearest station is?

When we lead into an indirect question with a statement, we often use what I call wavy intonation or questioning intonation.

This intonation pattern shows that you’re hesitating to make this request.

Watch the video to see how it sounds on this example: I was wondering if you’d help me move next week.

As you can hear, I’m maintaining this uncertain intonation throughout the entire sentence.

This shows that I’m not really sure how the other person would respond.

We often choose to end these requests with a slight rise at the end, instead of a steep fall, in order to emphasize that uncertainty.

Listen again: I was wondering if you’d help me move next week.

Using a slight rise at the end of these statements helps emphasize that it’s a question.

Listen to how this question sounds: Do you happen to know what time it is?

Using tentative intonation on these indirect questions signals that you understand that you’re asking for a favor, or you’re interrupting them from what they’re doing.

We use more tentative intonation to help the other person stay open and receptive to hearing our request.

Depending on the context, falling intonation or flat intonation on these indirect questions can make them sound more like a criticism than a request.


Practice Indirect Questions

Now that you have the language, the grammar structure, and the intonation for indirect questions, let’s practice with some examples.

(To repeat along with me, head to minute 8:26 on the video above.)

Let’s practice:

  • Could you tell me when the last train is?
  • Do you have any idea where I can buy a monthly bus pass?
  • I wanted to know if the apartment is still available.
  • I was wondering whether a deposit is required.
  • I’d like to check if the doctor has any availability this week.
  • I was wondering if the meeting could be rescheduled.
  • I’d like to ask if you could drive me to the airport.
  • I’m not sure if you have time to help me with this project.
  • I was wondering if you fixed the leak yet.

As I mentioned, you can share indirect observations or give subtle suggestions using the same structure:

  • I don’t know if they met the deadline.
  • Let me know when you’re ready to go.

Your Turn

As you can see, indirect questions are super useful in everyday conversations, whether that’s with strangers, with friends, or with coworkers.

It’s definitely worth your effort to learn how to make clear requests while still sounding tactful, polite, and diplomatic.

Indirect questions are super handy in a lot of different types of situations, so you will definitely have opportunities to practice.

If you’d like to practice right now, leave a comment with an indirect question with a suggestion or request for me.

For example, what would you like to hear me talk about in a future video?

Want to give clear, strong suggestions that still sound polite and tactful? Learn how here.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN AUGUST 2016, AND WAS UPDATED IN DECEMBER 2020.

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