Indirect questions in French

What is an indirect question?

Indirect questions (l’interrogation indirecte) are questions that have been reformulated in an indirect manner. They are included within a normal sentence, meaning that they are not usually written with a question mark. Indirect questions are often introduced by the following phrases:

Examples:
Je ne sais pas, …
Il demande, …
Je ne comprends pas, …
Elle voudrait savoir, …
Pouvez-vous me dire, …?
Je ne te dis pas, …
Voici …
Voilà …

Transforming a direct question into an indirect question brings about several changes to the grammar and punctuation of the sentence. Read on for tips and tricks to help you correctly form indirect questions in French grammar, then test yourself in the free interactive exercises.

Word order in indirect questions

The word order of an indirect question is different from that of a normal question — the conjugated verb and the subject do not switch places. Instead, after the question-word the word order remains the same as in a main clause:

question word + subject + verb + object

In an indirect question, the question-word comes before the subject.

Example:
Quand a-t-il du temps? → Je ne sais pas quand il a du temps.When does he have time? → I don’t know when he has time.

The conjugated verb and the subject only switch places if the subject is a noun (and not a pronoun) and when the verb is not followed by an object.

Example:
Où est la station de métro ? → Je vais lui demander où est la station de métro.Where is the subway station ? – I will ask him where the subway station is.

Indirect questions with si

For yes-no questions (questions without a question word), we use si in the indirect form. This is similar to the English if or whether.

Example:
Vient-elle demain? → Il demande si elle vient demain.Is she coming tomorrow? → He’s asking if she’s coming tomorrow.

To Note

Before the personal pronouns il and ils, we write s’ instead of si. This is known as elision.

Example:
Je ne sais pas s’il est content.I don’t know if he’s satisfied.

Punctuation in indirect questions

For an indirect question, we normally use a full stop instead of a question mark (see the examples above). The question mark is only included if the indirect question is part of an actual question.

Example:
Pouvez-vous me dire comment s’appelle cette rue?Can you tell me what the name of this street is?

How to turn direct questions into indirect questions

When turning direct questions into indirect questions, we need to remember the following points:

  • change the pronouns
    Example:
    Il demande à sa mère : « As-tu vu l’animatrice de télé ? » He asks his mother: “Have you seen the TV host?”
    → Il demande à sa mère si elle a vu l’animatrice de télé.He asks his mother if she has seen the TV host.
    Sandrine demande à Paul : « As-tu vu mon parapluie ? » Sandrine asks Paul: “Have you seen my umbrella?”
    → Sandrine demande à Paul s’il a vu son parapluie. Sandrine asks Paul if he has seen her umbrella.
  • change the verb: for the example below we use the 3rd person instead of the 2nd person. In many cases we also have to change the tense (see below).
    Example:
    Elle demande à son collègue : « Veux-tu manger à la cantine avec moi ? » She asks her colleague: “Do you want to eat in the canteen with me?”
    → Elle demande à son collègue s’il veut manger à la cantine avec elle.She asks her colleague if he wants to eat in the canteen with her.
  • if necessary, change the time and place
    Example:
    Il demanda : « Est-elle venue ici hier ? » He asked: “Did she come here yesterday?”
    → Il demanda si elle était venue au café le jour précédent.He asked if she had been to the café the day before.

Changing the Tense

If the verb in the introductory clause is in the présent (e.g. il demande), the tense remains unchanged in indirect speech. In some cases, however, we still need to change the verb form (1st person singular → 3rd person singular).

Example:
Il se demande : « Est-ce que je suis bien habillé ? » He asks himself: “Am I well dressed?”
→ Il se demande s’il est bien habillé. He asks himself whether he is well dressed.

If the introductory clause is in the past tense (e.g. il a demandé), the tense of the indirect speech must be shifted back (see table).

Direct Speech Indirect Speech
présent imparfait
passé composé/passé simple plus-que-parfait
imparfait imparfait/plus-que-parfait
futur simple conditionnel présent
futur antérieur conditionnel passé
impératif subjonctif présent
conditionnel présent conditionnel présent
conditionnel passé conditionnel passé
Example:
ll a demandé : « Est-ce qu’elle est fachée contre moi ? » He asked: “Is she mad at me?”
→ Il a demandé si elle était fachée contre lui. He asked if she was mad at him.
Elle s’est demandé : « Serai-je riche un jour ? » She asked herself: “Will I be rich one day?”
→ Elle s’est demandé si elle serait riche un jour. She asked herself whether she would be rich one day.