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Question mark 3

We all remember learning in grade school about how to change a statement into a question by simply putting the verb before the subject. Example: Betty was late for her appointment. Was Betty late for her appointment? But then English, being the flexible language that it is, provides a number of variations of that basic pattern. Here are ones using helping verbs:

Betty went by bus to her appointment. Did Betty go by bus to her appointment?

Fernando speaks three languages. Does Fernando speak three languages?

Most of the time we have no problem with asking direct questions like these. The confusion comes sometimes when we forget to change the pattern for direct questions when we want to frame an indirect question. Say you are in the midst of a conversation and these words come out of your mouth: I was talking to Ron yesterday and asked him did he want to go to the game with us tonight. That last part is the correct form for a direct question, but what you actually want is an indirect question: I was talking to Ron yesterday and asked him if he wanted to go to the game with us tonight. You can probably get away with using that hybrid form in speech, but when you write you need to be a little more attentive and use the correct form for indirect questions.

Here are some other examples:

Direct: Is this item for sale?     Indirect: I’d like to know if this item is for sale.

Direct: What did she want to do?     Indirect: Frank wondered what she wanted to do.

Direct: Where has the time gone?     Indirect: I have no idea where the time went.

You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that with these indirect questions the subject and verb are in the same order as in a statement. And there is no question mark at the end. There are, however, other variations that combine indirect questions with direct questions, and so they do end with question marks.

Do you have any idea where the closest restaurant is?

Can you tell me whose jacket this is?

Does he remember when the last bus comes?

Are you going to ask someone if the next train stops here?

Hopefully, this brief explanation will be a reminder to look carefully at the construction of sentences that end with question marks or that have a question embedded in them. If you are a native speaker of English, you can usually tell if a sentence is correct just by the way it sounds–but be aware that patterns in speech are not always as formal as they need to be in writing.

As I may have said before, all the possible variations in English may drive students and English teachers to distraction, but they also increase its flexibility and allow for more nuances in meaning.

Feel free to respond with other examples of indirect questions that you have come across.