Published 13th January 2017

direct and indirect questions

There are many tricky aspects of English grammar but one which particularly seems to cause our learners a lot of trouble is direct and indirect questions. Firstly, they need to learn and understand how to construct direct questions (which is tricky in itself), and then they need to be able to ask questions in an indirect way in certain situations in order to sound more polite or formal. So what’s the deal with direct and indirect questions?

Read more: How to Teach Good Grammar

There are, of course, a number of problems students can have when it comes to direct and indirect questions. Some students have problems with intonation when asking a question, others get mixed up with their word order, while others struggle to understand which are the appropriate situations for different questions. 

To help our students as much as we can with regards to direct and indirect questions, there are a few steps we need to take. We first need to make sure our learners are comfortable constructing direct questions before moving on indirect questions.  

anticipating efl learners problems

What are direct questions?

When dealing with direct questions, we can teach our learners that they are formed by using the QUASM model.

Qu – Question word A – Auxiliary verb  S – Subject M – main verb

For example:

Where do you live?

Qu         A    S     M

This is an example of an object question. Subject questions, in which we ask about the subject of a question, follow the QuAM model (without the subject) but they do not include the auxiliary verb do. 

This is a good rule of thumb to lay the foundation for forming questions, but it’s not the only rule. This rule applies to open questions – i.e., questions which have a question word, and questions which the answer can be any answer. For the question Where do you live?, for example, the answer could be London or Houston or the moon; in other words, there are endless possibilities for the answer.

In contrast, closed question are questions which can only have the answers yes or no. These are also known as yes/no questions. If the question is a yes/no question, the question will follow the ASM model, without the question word.

For example:

Do you drink coffee?

A     S      M

Questions with the verb to be follow a different pattern:

For example:

Are       you    happy?

To be      S       Complement

These questions are what are known as direct questions. 

Then we get indirect questions. 

What are indirect questions?

While we use direct questions in everyday conversations and with friends and people we know, indirect questions are questions framed with a particular phrase. Effectively, indirect questions help us sound more polite or more formal. If you consider the two sentences:

Where’s the bathroom? (direct question)

And

Excuse me, do you know where the bathroom is? (indirect question)

you should immediately understand the use and context of indirect questions. In terms of structure, basically, an indirect question is a direct question with an indirect structure attached to the beginning.

These structures include:

Can/Could you tell me…

Do you know…

I was wondering…

Would it be possible…

Is there any chance…

Then, in terms of word order, it depends on the nature of the question. Questions with question words invert the auxiliary verb and the subject: QuSAM (which isn’t nearly as memorable!).

For example:

                        Where are you going? (direct question)

Can you tell me where you are going? (indirect question)

                                                                         Qu       S     A    M

(You may notice that this is actually the same order as a positive sentence; basically indirect questions do not use inversion like other questions do).

Again, though, there are exceptions.

If the question includes the auxiliary verb do, this does not transfer to the indirect question:

 What time does the bank open? (direct question)

 Do you know what time the bank opens? (indirect question)

                                                                       Qu              S              M

For yes/no questions, the indirect question does not have a question word, so will follow the pattern if/whether + SAM.

For example:

 Has she been there before? (direct question)

 Do you know if she has been there before? (indirect question)

                                                                If S      A    M

How can we teach direct and indirect questions in the EFL classroom?

Indirect questions are particularly important to our English language learners, as they are likely to find themselves in situations in English-speaking countries which they are not familiar with. In such cases they will need to know how to speak politely if they need to ask for information or directions. Not using indirect questions will make them sound rude or unfriendly to the very people they are asking for help.

As we generally try to replicate our students’ real lives in the classroom, the best thing to do is to create situations which replicate these authentic situations. As you can guess, the most logical activity is to do a role play. First, give your students time to come up with the usual questions foreigners need to ask locals when they are visiting a city; for example, Where’s the bus stop? What time does the bank close? Is there a restaurant near here? Then, give them time to reconstruct these as indirect questions – Excuse me, do you know where the bus stop is? Can you tell me what time the bank closes? Do you know if there is a restaurant near here? Finally, allow the students to mingle and ask each other the questions or create a role play in pairs or groups which they can re-enact for the class.  

Read more: The Importance of Role Plays

If you are teaching in an English-speaking country then a great option is to take your students on an outing in a public place. Set your learners a few tasks with information they need to find out; for example, what is the closest Italian restaurant to the school? What time does the bank close? Where is the bus stop? Give the students time beforehand to look at the tasks and construct and memorise the appropriate questions. Then let them go outside the school and find out the information they need by asking people the questions. 

While constructing indirect questions may seem a bit confusing with so many exceptions to the “rules”, with enough practice your students will get the hang of them. Especially if your students are living in a foreign country, indirect questions are an important structure to be able to use so as to sound polite and courteous rather than rude or aggressive. If your lessons are done well, your students will reap the benefits of this new language as they go about their daily lives outside the classroom.