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Session 2

‘Could you tell me how we ask indirect questions?’ Well, that’s what we’re going to do in this session. We’re going to look at different ways of asking for information and making requests, focusing on indirect questions. We will look at the uses of indirect questions as well as the form and word order.

Sessions in this unit

Session 2 score

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    Activity 1
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    Activity 2
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    Activity 3

Activity 1

Making and using indirect questions

Indirect questions: form, meaning and use.

Let's take a look at how to make indirect questions and when and why we use them.

Here's an example situation. Amith is working with the BBC Learning English team. It's his first day at the office. He needs to find a computer and log on to it.

Read the text

He asks Harry: Do you know if this computer is free? And he asks Catherine: Could you tell me what I do to log on to the computer?

These are both indirect questions and they are very polite ways to ask for information. They start with phrases like Could you tell me….? and Do you know if…? 

Why do we use indirect questions?

Why did Amith use indirect questions? Think about this:

  • Does Amith know the people in the office?
  • Is he trying to be polite?
  • Can he be sure that Catherine and Harry know the answers to his questions?

In this situation, Amith doesn’t know the people in the office – he has only just met them, so he wants to be formal and polite (a direct question like Is this computer free? may be considered impolite). He also doesn’t know if Catherine and Harry are the right people to ask - they might be able to help him or they might not.

By asking indirect questions, Amith sounds more polite and less demanding – he gives the other person the chance to say No, sorry I can’t help you, but maybe Finn can...

When should we use indirect questions?

Here are some more examples of indirect questions and the situations when we might ask them:

  • Excuse me - do you know where the nearest train station is? (Asking for information from a stranger on the street)
  • I wonder if you could tell me what time the next train leaves. (Asking for information from a person who works in the train station)
  • Could you show me where the snack bar is? (Asking for help from the conductor on the train)

In these examples, we are asking for information or help from people we don’t know. We can also use indirect questions when we want to be formal, polite, or to check information with people we know.

  • Hi Mike. Do you know if Catherine has arrived yet? (Giving Mike the option to say Sorry, I don’t know)
  • Hi Catherine. I was wondering if I could leave early this afternoon. I have a dentist appointment. (Asking for permission to do something)
  • Hi Harry. Can you tell me what time the meeting finishes this afternoon? I have to go somewhere and I don’t want to be late. (This is more polite than simply asking What time does the meeting finish?)


In summary, we use indirect questions:

  • To ask for information
  • To ask for help
  • To make requests

We use them instead of direct questions when:

  • We want to be polite
  • We perhaps don’t know the speaker or he/she is someone we should speak to in a formal way
  • We may not know if the person knows the answer to our question

We start indirect questions with phrases like:

  • Can you tell me…?
  • Could you tell me...?
  • Do you know…?
  • I wonder if you could tell me…
  • I was wondering if you could tell me
  • Can you show me…?
  • Could you show me…?

Word order

But what about the word order after these starting phrases? Compare these direct and indirect questions – what do you notice?

DIRECT: Where is the cinema?

INDIRECT: Do you know where the cinema is?

DIRECT: What time does the film start? 

INDIRECT: Can you tell me what time the film starts?

In direct questions, we usually use an auxiliary verb (am/is/are, do/does, have/has, etc.) before the subject. However, in an indirect question, the auxiliary verb (if there is one) and the main verb come after the subject.

CORRECT: Could you show me how this computer works? 

WRONG: Could you show me how does this computer work?

Question marks

When the starting phrase has question word order, use a question mark.

  • Could you tell me how this computer works?

If the starting phrase has statement word order, don't use a question mark. 

  • I wonder if you could tell me how this computer works.


Now we know all about the meaning of indirect questions, when to use them and their word order. Now it's time to see if you can recognise when they are written correctly. You'll also learn how to use the words if and whether in indirect questions.

Session Grammar

  • Indirect questions help us to sound more formal or polite.

    Direct question: What time is it?

    Indirect question: Could you tell me what time it is?

    Indirect questions are introduced by phrases like:

    • Can you tell me...
    • Could you show me...
    • Would you mind telling me...
    • Have you any idea..
    • I wonder...

    This first part of an indirect question is followed by a question word or if or whether with the information we want to know.

    • Could you tell me what you're doing?
    • Could you tell me who is in charge?
    • I wonder when we're having dinner.
    • Could you show me where the station is?
    • Have you any idea how I use this smartphone?
    • Could you tell me if you're free?
    • I wonder whether you can come to my party.

    The word order in the second part of the question is the same as statement word order: subject + verb.

    Direct question: What time is it?

    Indirect question: Could you tell me what time it is?