Questions, Direct and Indirect

Let’s talk about the difference between these two sentences: What do you want? and He asked me what I wanted. It’s clear that the first sentence is asking a question, but doesn’t the other sentence involve a question as well? It does, and the two different constructions illustrate what are called direct and indirect questions.

It’s probably best we begin with this quick review. Sentences in English are traditionally divided into four classes or sorts: declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory. Declarative sentences assert a fact (or what is thought by the speaker to be a fact), and interrogative sentences ask a direct question—they are in search of a fact, so to speak. Declarative sentences end with a period and interrogatives finish up with a question mark. Imperative sentences, in turn, directly command something and often end with an exclamation mark; exclamatory sentences cry out an emotion of some sort and usually end, more often than not (and for better or worse), with an exclamation mark.

Those are the grammatical classifications, and in the best of worlds we are to remember that such technical niceties have a useful application. One such practical end here is to notice that not everything that looks like a question is a question in the same way. Some direct questions, like Is it going to rain tomorrow?, are formed by inverting the regular declarative order of the subject and verb (is it, rather than it is). Other direct questions commonly employ what is called the emphatic aspect without implying any emphasis; that’s the construction of the sentence we began with: What do you want? The emphatic aspect uses the verb do with the infinitive form of a verb (do + want). It’s very much one thing to be asking someone a question with the expectation of an answer, and very much another to be telling someone that someone asked you a question.

A direct question like What do you want? is often made up of one interrogative clause (do you want) introduced by an interrogative pronoun (who, which, what). An indirect question, by contrast, has at least two clauses, one main clause and another subordinate clause dependent upon it. So in the sentence He asked me what I wanted, the main clause, he asked me, presents its subject and verb in the regular declarative order; the subordinate clause that follows it (what I wanted) stands as a noun and direct object of the transitive verb asked. Note that this subordinate clause is also in the declarative word order. And although that might sound complicated in its explanation, we use this noun clause construction and others like it all the time. Nouns can come in the form of entire clauses, and an entire clause can stand in all the grammatical places a single noun can.

Now all this is worth the thinking about because a common mistake in writing is to conclude an indirect question with a question mark: He asked me what I wanted? That is not correct, on the established rule that direct questions conclude with a question mark, indirect questions with a period. And that rule makes sense, because an indirect question is really a declarative sentence, not an interrogative one. If I tell you that he asked me what I wanted, I’m doing just that: telling you, which means I am communicating a fact to you, not asking you directly what it is you think I wanted. I’m not expecting you to reply with an answer. The point of a question mark (whether written or conveyed in the tone of our voice) is to elicit a response. But an indirect question is not looking for a response; it’s establishing a fact, which is that someone asked me a certain question and I’m now telling you what that question was.

Now you can imagine the number of variations there are on this theme of questions and their punctuation. It’s all much more than space here will allow, except for this one common construction called a courtesy question, which is a command disguised as a question. If someone (your boss, perhaps?) concludes an email to you with the following sentence, it’s best to take it as a request, not a question: Would you please pass this information on to everyone. And that’s why courtesy questions end with a period, not a question mark. Because there’s probably no question about it.


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