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How to Use Indirect Questions in English

The way you communicate can make or break a business relationship.

On top of keeping communication positive and productive, it’s good to ask things in a polite and respectful way. You can do that by using indirect questions.

Stick around as we explain what indirect questions are and how to use them!

What is a direct question? 

To understand indirect questions, it’s useful to know what a direct question is. A direct question is, well, direct. It’s what you would think of as a “normal” question: the “yes/no” questions, “wh-” questions, and choice questions. 

Here are a few examples of direct questions:

  • Have you made me a pizza? (yes/no question) 
  • What did you work on today? (wh- question)
  • Does she prefer Christmas or New Year’s Eve? (choice question)
  • Where is the office? (wh- question)
  • Are you coming to the office party? (yes/no question)

What is an indirect question?

Indirect questions are different. They’re less direct, often more formal, and are usually seen as more polite—that’s why they’re great in many business situations. 

These questions don’t follow the same rules as direct ones. Rather than asking something directly, they’re placed inside another question or statement. So, instead of just asking, “What time is it?” you’d ask something like “Could you tell me what time it is?”

These are some common ways to begin indirect questions:

  • Can/could you tell me . . . ? 
  • Can/could you let me know . . . ?
  • Would you mind . . . ?
  • Do you know . . . ?
  • Would it be possible . . . ?
  • I was wondering . . . (Don’t use a question mark here because this is a statement, not a question.)
  • Do you have any idea . . . ?

Now, let’s take the direct questions from earlier and turn them into indirect questions to see the differences a little better.

DirectIndirect
Have you made me a pizza?Could you tell me if you have made me a pizza?
What did you work on today?Can you let me know what you worked on today?
Does she prefer Christmas or New Year’s Eve?I was wondering whether she preferred Christmas or New Year’s Eve.
Where is the office building?Do you know where the office building is?
Are you coming to the office party?Do you have any idea whether you’re coming to the office party?

Some notes about structure 

  • If a direct question uses “is” or “are,” it will go at the end of an indirect question.

→ Where is the office building? (direct)

→ Do you know where the office building is? (indirect)

  • We don’t use the auxiliary verbs do/does/did in indirect questions.

→ What did you work on today? (direct)

→ Can you let me know what you worked** on today? (indirect)

**Notice that, because we have the past tense “did” in the direct question, we use the past tense “worked” in the indirect question. Always make sure to use the right verb tense.

  • If there is an auxiliary verb in your indirect question, it will go after the subject.

Can he finish the presentation? (direct: the auxiliary verb “can” goes before the subject “he”)

Do you know if he can finish the presentation? (indirect: auxiliary verb “can” goes after the subject “he”)

Using “if” and “whether”

You might have noticed that some of our example sentences above use either “if” or “whether.” These are generally used the same way, but “whether” tends to be more formal. Generally, you use “if” or “whether” in:

  • Choice questions 

→ I was wondering whether she preferred Christmas or New Year’s Eve.

  • Yes/no questions

Could you tell me if you’ve made me a pizza?

Note: There are some yes/no questions in which “if” won’t work. For example, “Would it be possible . . .” usually includes an infinitive verb.

→ Would it be possible to finish this tomorrow?

→ Would it be possible for you to finish this tomorrow? 

With yes/no questions (not choice questions), you can also include “or not.” 

  • “If” question: Put “or not” at the end of the question. 

→ Could you tell me if you’ve made me a pizza or not?

  • “Whether” question: Use it directly after “whether,” OR at the end of the question. 

→ Do you have any idea whether you’re coming to the office party or not?

→ Do you have any idea whether or not you’re coming to the office party?

Question everything

Ready to practice? 

Here are some things you can try: 

  • Look for direct questions in your everyday life (in conversations, on blogs, in YouTube videos, in books, etc.), and convert them into indirect questions. For instance, if you’re at the grocery store and you hear someone ask a salesperson, “Are these apples on sale?” you can think to yourself, “Could you tell me if these apples are on sale?”
  • Have a friend or family member ask you direct questions (about anything at all). Instead of answering their question, say it back to them in indirect form.
  • Listen to others around you: The more you hear indirect questions, the more you’ll know what sounds natural.

Getting indirect questions right takes some effort—using the right words in the right order can sometimes be frustrating. But as you know, the more you practice, the better you’ll get!

Andrea is a Gabby Academy coach and education technolgy writer based in Vancouver, Canada.