Indirect Questions

Introduction

Indirect questions are questions that we ask by including them indirectly within another sentence. We use them to add information to certain expressions such as the ones below.

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 …

Sentence Structure

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

subject + verb + object

However, 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.

But the finite verb and the subject switch places when 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

If there isn’t any question-word, we use si in the indirect question.

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

To Note

Before the personal pronouns il and ils, we write s’ instead of si.

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 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?

Turning 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 this example use 3rd person instead of 2nd person and change the tense
    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 introductory clause is in the présent (e.g. il demande), the tense remains unchanged in the 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.