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, you probably feel a little embarrassed or uncomfortable. You may be worried about hearing a “no” or getting a negative reaction, or feel like you’re inconveniencing the other person.
Well, this happens to native speakers too! This is why we make these kinds of requests using embedded questions, also known as indirect questions.
Indirect questions create distance from what you need or want from the other person, which makes requests more polite, observations less confrontational, and suggestions more of a strong nudge than overt criticism.
Why You Should Be Polite When Asking Questions
Polite conversation strategies help your listener stay receptive and open to what you have to say – even when you’re disagreeing, criticizing a suggestion, or giving honest negative feedback.
By choosing language that suits your purpose as well as your message, you will start to have more effective conversations in English, and present your ideas in a tactful, diplomatic way.
If you listen carefully to native speakers, you’ll realize that most use indirect language when asking questions.
Of course, you can be polite when asking questions in the traditional way, especially when you use intonation correctly.
But since embedded questions include more hesitation and distance in the way they are formed, they have politeness built right into them.
When to Use Embedded Questions
Making requests with embedded questions helps the other person excuse any interruption to what they were doing.
This is why you use them whenever you ask a stranger for information (like directions or the time), request something from a server or bartender in a busy restaurant, or talk to a receptionist, administrative assistant or secretary. For example, “Do you happen to know what time it is?”
You should use embedded questions when you want to ask a friend or colleague for some help or a favor, especially when it will require extra effort or a time commitment from them.
Embedded questions are also common when you need to make a request that may be an inconvenience or otherwise unpopular or annoying.
Here’s a common request from friends: “I was wondering if you would help me move next week.”
Using embedded questions in these situations shows the other person that you understand what your request entails and appreciate their time. All that in a grammar structure! 😀
In addition, embedded questions are a good way to make indirect observations, especially negative ones!
Instead of saying, “He’s not ready yet, he’s making us late,” you can say something softer, like, “I’m not sure if he’s ready yet.”
Similarly, you can make more subtle suggestions using embedded questions. If you’re managing someone who has yet to complete a report, you can ask, “I was wondering if the report is finished yet” instead of the more impatient question, “Is the report ready yet?”
By using an embedded question, it becomes clear to your employee that you need the completed report, but you’re not embarrassing them with a demanding question.
How to Structure Embedded Questions
Even though we are referring to these types of questions as embedded questions, it’s important to remember that they do not always take the form of questions; sometimes they’re just indirect statements!
That’s why we use the word “embedded” – the question is inside, even hidden.
Embedded questions have two parts: the first is a polite question or indirect statement used to introduce your question and the second is your actual question “embedded” inside.
Let’s look at these parts in more detail.
Polite Questions Used to Signal Embedded Questions
As you have learned in your years of studying English, we usually use modal verbs like can, could, and would when making requests.
We often use them when introducing embedded questions, too – they are a way of asking permission to continue your request.
In addition, we use verbs like “know” and “remember” to start requests where the other person may not be able to help us, which is a way to show them it’s okay to tell us they can’t help.
Here are some common questions used to introduce embedded questions:
- Could I ask…?
- Can I check…?
- Could you tell me…?
- Would you mind explaining/repeating, or clarifying…?
- Do you know…?
- Can/Do you remember…?
- Do you have any idea…?
- Do you happen to know…?
- Would you happen to know?
Remember: these introductory yes/no questions are your actual question, so you need to be sure to use yes/no question intonation as you lead into the second part of the question.
Statements Used to Introduce Embedded Questions
Besides polite leading questions, you can use common expressions that show your uncertainty and hesitation about asking your question.
Adding additional language and changing the verbs to the past tense or even the past continuous emphasizes the hesitation as you distance yourself from the inconvenient or uncomfortable request.
- I want to know..
- I wanted to know..
- I was asking myself / Sarah / my boss…
- I wonder…
- I was wondering..
- We were wondering…
- I/We want/need/would 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…
Just like with questions, you want to use questioning or “wavy” intonation when saying these phrases, which enhances the uncertainty.
Grammar Structure for Embedded Questions
After you’ve introduced your question with a leading question or hesitant statement, you can finally ask what you’ve been wanting to ask!
Remember that your question is in the first part of the statement; your embedded question is a noun clause.
If you’re asking a yes/no question as your embedded question, you’ll use the words “if” or “whether,” or the phrase “whether or not.” All of them are equally fine.
For information questions, or wh- questions, you’ll just use the question word: who, what, where, when, why, or how.
The most important thing to remember with embedded questions is the word order after the question word (if / whether / who /what / where /when / how).
Since the embedded question is a noun clause, you need to put the subject first, and then the verb. One more time: subject, then verb.
Most non-native English speakers forget this and reverse the order of the embedded question. To sound more natural in English, you must be sure that your embedded question follows subject/verb word order!
You’ve already asked your question in the first part, so you don’t need to use question order again. It’s as easy as that!
(For more guidance on the different grammar structures for direct and indirect questions, you may want to read Shayna’s helpful article here.)
Intonation in Embedded Questions
As I mentioned earlier, you want to make sure that your intonation maintains typical yes/no question intonation, with a rise and quick fall on the last content word in the embedded question.
I also suggest using question intonation for the leading question or statement, keeping your tone high on the last content word before if, whether, or the wh-question word.
Remember, intonation helps show the polite attitude behind your request.
If you are using flat, authoritative intonation with embedded questions, it can actually sound like a strong criticism!
Be sure to show that you’re asking a polite question with your voice! (Learn more about the conversational uses of intonation here.)
Examples of Embedded Questions
Now that you have the language and the grammar structure necessary for embedded questions, let’s look at some example situations where it’s helpful to request information using embedded questions.
Asking about train schedules:
- Could you tell me when the last train is?
- Do you have any idea when the last train is?
Looking for a new apartment:
- I wanted to know if the apartment is still available.
- I was wondering if the apartment is still available.
- I’d like to check if the doctor has any availability this week.
- I was wondering if the meeting could be rescheduled.
Asking for a favor:
- I’d like to ask if you could lend me $20.
- I’m not sure if you have time to help me with this project. (Instead of “Could you help me with this project?” or “Do you have time to help me with this project?”
As I mention above, you can also share indirect observations or give subtle suggestions using embedded questions. Here are some examples:
Instead of asking your landlord, “Have you fixed the leak yet?” which can sound demanding, say, “I was wondering if you’ve fixed the leak yet.”
Rathre than saying, “Will didn’t meet the deadline,” you can say, “I don’t know if Will met the deadline.”
Better than impatiently asking, “Are you ready to go?,” you might try, “Let me know if/when you are ready to go.”
Adding this extra language gives the person the ability to make the necessary change without feeling like they’d been told what to do.
Even though embedded questions are simple to construct, they are super useful in everyday conversation with colleagues and classmates, with friends, and even in romantic relationships!
Learning to be polite while still making clear requests takes time and effort, but embedded questions are so useful that you will find lots of opportunities to practice.
Now it’s your turn! Leave a comment below with a suggestion or request for me. What type of content would you like me to cover in the future? How would you like to improve your conversation skills to sound more natural in English?