What is an Embedded Question?
Embedded questions, also known as noun clauses, can sound more polite (softer) than a direct question. Compare:
Direct Question: What are you doing?
Embedded Question: Could you tell me what you are doing?
As you can see, an embedded question is a question inside another sentence (the question is embedded within another sentence.). The sentence can be a statement or a question. For example:
I would like to know what your name is. (statement)
*Note that the question mark is removed because the sentence is a statement).
The same question can also be put inside another question. For example,
Can you tell me what your name is? (a question embedded in another question)
Do you mind telling me what your name is? (a question embedded in another question)
Thankfully, if you are putting a question into a sentence or another question, the grammar rules are the same. Let’s review question-types in English before we look at the rules.
The Two Question Types in English
1. Yes/No Questions: The answer to these questions are “Yes” or “No”. Here are some examples:
- Are you happy?
- Did you go?
- Should we go?
- Have you been to Cuba?
2. WH-Questions (also known as Information Questions)
These begin with a “WH” question word (Who/What/Which/Where/Why/When/How/How long/How far). These questions ask for information (not a Yes or No).
Common Phrases to Start Embedded Questions
- Can/Could/Would you tell me …
- Would/Do you mind…
- Do you know…
- I’d like to know…
- I’m not sure…
- I was wondering…
- I wonder…
- I don’t know…
- Please tell me…
Three Main Rules for Making Embedded Questions
1. Delete the Helping Verb ‘Do/Does/Did’ from the Original Question
- Do you like sushi?
- What does it mean?
- How long did you sleep?
Do is an auxiliary verb (helping verb) used to make questions. This word is not needed because embedded questions are not structured like questions (they use statement word order, which will be explained below).
2. For Yes/No Questions, Add ‘If/Whether’
If the direct question is a Yes/No question, then you will always need to add if or whether (whether is a little more formal) to the beginning of the embedded question.
Direct Yes/No Question: Can she dance?
Embedded Yes/No Question: I wonder if/whether she can dance.
3. Use Statement Word Order (Not Question Word Order)
In a regular question, the subject comes after either the main verb or an auxiliary verb (note: auxiliary verbs are helping verbs such as can/could/would/should/may/might/do/will/ought to). For example:
- Is he sick? [Verb + Subject]
- Can she dance? [Auxiliary Verb + Subject + Main Verb]
- Do you understand? [Auxiliary Verb + Subject + Main Verb]
To make an embedded question, you have to use statement word order, which has the subject before the main verb or auxiliary verb. For example:
Can you tell me…
- … if he is sick? [If/whether + Subject + Main Verb]
- … whether she can dance? [If/whether + Subject + Auxiliary Verb + Main Verb]
- … if you understand? [If/whether + Subject + Main Verb] (*Note: ‘do’ is deleted.)
Review of Basic Rules
Let’s review with this question, “Do you have a dog?”
Step 1. Delete the helping verb “do”
I wonder …
Do you have a dog?
Step 2. Add ‘If’ or ‘Whether’ for a Yes/No Question
I wonder if you have a dog. (correct!)
We don’t need to do step #3 because we deleted ‘do’, which means the embedded question is already in statement order (if you have a dog = if + subject + verb + object). Let’s practice another with “Where is he?”
Step 1: Not necessary (no ‘do’ in question)
Step 2: Not necessary (not a Yes/No question)
Step 3: Change to statement word order:
I wonder where he is. (correct!)
Those are the main rules. There are some special notes to learn, however, which will come below. First, let’s practice the rules above.
Exercise 1: Embedded Questions (Easy)
Notes: Remember to add punctuation (a period for a statement or question mark for a question).
- (Where do they live?) > I wonder
- (Is Tony happy?) > Can you tell me
- (Should we visit?) > I don’t know
- (What do you want?) > I’m not sure
- (How is the cake?) > Could you tell me
- (Who do you live with?) > Do you mind telling me
Note #1: Changing Verb Agreement or Tenses After Deleting ‘Does/Did’
If the helping verb ‘do’ is in the past tense, then after you delete it, you must change the main verb to past tense. For example:
- Did he go? > I wonder if he went. (go changes to went)
- Who did she meet? > I wonder who she met. (meet changes to met)
If the helping verb is ‘does’ (third person singular), then after you delete it, you must change the main verb to third person singular (by adding ‘s’). For example:
- Does she go often? > I wonder if she goes often. (go changes to goes)
- Who does she meet? > I wonder who she meets. (meet changes to meets)
(Note: Do not delete ‘didn’t/did not’ when making an embedded questions because these words are needed to make a verb negative. E.g. Why didn’t he come? > I wonder why he did not come)
Exercise 2: Changing Main Verbs
Please remember to add punctuation (a period for a statement or question mark for a question).
- (What did she say?) > I wonder
- (Does it matter?) > Can you tell me
- (Where did he go?) > I don’t know
- (How long does it take?) > I’m not sure
- (Did he leave?) > Could you tell me
- (Which did he take?) > Do you mind telling me
Note #2: Do Not Change Anything for WH-Questions about the Subject
Some WH-Questions (information questions) are about the subject. In this case, you don’t have to change anything because the sentence is already in statement order. For example:
Question: Who ate the cake?
Answer: John ate it.
In the answer “John ate it”, the word John is the subject of the sentence. For questions about subjects, you do not need to make any changes to the word order. (Note: Only ‘Who/What/Which/Which(noun)‘ can ask questions about the subject.)
Who ate the cake? > I wonder who at the cake. (No change)
What happened? > I wonder what happened. (No change)
Which is ours? >I wonder which is ours. (No change)
[Which classroom] is ours? > I wonder which classroom is ours. (No change)
Summary of Embedded Question Rules
- Delete helping verb do/does/did AND change verb tense or verb agreement if required.
- Add If/Whether for Yes/No Questions.
- Change to statement word order (S + V or S + AUX + V) if required.
Exercise 3: Intermediate Embedded Questions
Remember to add punctuation (a period for a statement or question mark for a question).
- (Who ordered pizza?) > I wonder
- (What does it cost?) > Can you tell me
- (Should we tip?) > I don’t know
- (Did we tip enough?) > I’m not sure
- (Has he met Janet?) > Could you tell me
- (Will the manager arrive soon?) > Do you mind telling me
- (Is Mary going fishing?) > I wonder
- (Why didn’t he ask?) > I don’t know
- (What were they watching?) > Do you mind telling me
Those are the main rules for creating embedded questions. The rules are the same for noun clauses as well. If you have found a mistake or have a question, please leave a comment below.
– Written by Matthew Barton of Englishcurrent.com (copyright)