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Embedded Questions – When Reversing Word Order Isn’t Necessary

Today we’re going to look at a very simple yet often ignored English grammar feature which affects the word order in interrogative sentences, otherwise known as questions – and it’s called embedded questions.

As we all know, in a question the word order changes, and regardless of what word the sentence begins with – whether it’s an auxiliary verb such as ‘to do’ or one of those ‘wh’ words like ‘why’, ‘where’, ‘when’, or ‘who’ followed by an auxiliary verb – the word order in a question is the following – auxiliary verb followed by the subject and then followed by the main verb in infinitive and then followed by other words.

So a statement “You broke the law by trying to help me” becomes Did you break the law by trying to help me?” when words are re-arranged in a question form. Of course, it’s all common sense, and you’ve probably started wandering why I’m talking about something so simple in this practical English grammar lesson.

Well, don’t be so rash, my friends, for here comes the tricky part!

As you may have noticed, one mistake made by many foreign English speakers – probably including you – is that when you ask a question, you forget to change the main verb to its infinitive form. It can happen quite easily, especially if your native language doesn’t follow such a pattern in interrogative sentences. Even if you don’t translate directly form your mother’s tongue when speaking English, it still may happen every now and then that you say things like “Where did she went?” or “Why did you forgot to dot it?” while you should have said “Where did she go?” and “Why did you forget to do it?” instead.

Most likely it’s quite a rare occurrence, but still it’s very annoying when it happens. And you know what? It happens to me as well, no matter how strange it sounds! Not that I’m some kind of an English professor – I’m just an ordinary foreigner and I don’t claim to be someone special when it comes to speaking English, and I know that making mistakes is an integral part of any improvement process.

So What The Embedded Questions Are All About?

Basically what it means is that if you begin the question with some other phrase such as “Can you tell me where…?” or “Do you know when…?” or “I wonder why…” and then follow it with the main question, you don’t have to reverse the word order and you don’t have to use the auxiliary verb either

So “What time is it?” becomes “Can you tell me what time it is?” and “Why did you go home early yesterday?” becomes “Can you tell me why you went home early yesterday?”

I think it’s a really cool English language feature allowing foreign English speakers to use the Past Tense verb form in questions if that’s what you’re more comfortable with and you constantly keep forgetting that if you begin a standard interrogative question with an auxiliary verb in Past Tense, the main verb changes to infinitive.

This feature is relevant to spoken English in particular, because it’s quite normal to begin any question in a conversation with some other words, not just using the formal way of asking questions and using the auxiliary verb or a ‘wh’ word.

And if you come to think of it, it would be actually weird if you only ever used the standard question syntax in real life English conversations.

You don’t normally ask a straightforward question without indicating why you’re asking it, or without saying some sort of a polite phrase before the question. For instance, you wouldn’t ask your work colleague just out of the blue“What time did we go home yesterday?” You would most likely begin the question with something like “Sorry Mark, can you tell me please…” and then follow it up with the question. The whole sentence would therefore sound “Sorry Mark, can you tell me please what time we went home yesterday?”, so you don’t have to use the auxiliary verb ‘to do’ when forming such questions.

As I previously said, this embedded question structure is very handy when questions about the past are asked, and you can leave the main verb in its past form in the question. But regardless of what tense is used, the same standard word order in embedded questions is followed, so you can make it your habit to begin casual questions with a phrase such as “I wonder …”, “Can you tell me …?”, “Does anyone know…?”, “I just wanted to ask you …”, “I don’t know…” and then omit the auxiliary verb that you’d normally begin the question with and use a normal word order in the sentence.

And now I’m going to give you a couple more examples.

  • “Does anyone know what time the train leaves?” instead of “Does anyone know what time does the train leave?”
  • “I wonder what time you arrived home last night” instead of “I wonder what time did you arrive home last night?”
  • “I really don’t know why it happened” instead of “I really don’t know why did it happen”.
  • “Can you tell me why Sharon is so angry today?” instead of “Can you tell me why is Sharon so angry today?”
  • “I just wanted to ask you what time we’re taking a break today” instead of “I just wanted to ask you what time are we taking a break today”.

As you noticed, the last two examples weren’t about omitting an auxiliary verb, because in sentence such as “Why is Sharon so angry?” there’s none; in this case it’s all about the word order which changes to normal when a question becomes embedded in a longer sentence.

So this is what I wanted to emphasize in today’s practical English grammar lesson – in real English conversations questions are normally embedded, which means they’re preceded by another phrase or sentence, and it this case you don’t have to change the word order like if the question was on its own ❗

The reason why you’d be inclined towards using the reverse word order in an embedded question is because you’ve been taught that questions beginning with ‘wh’ words such as ‘why’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and similar would have a reverse word order, and it automatically triggers the standard question syntax.

So this is a piece of advice that might just help you speak a bit more confidently, my dear fellow foreign English speakers!


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gopal Bhattarai

    What is the embedded question for this?
    Was he alone? Did you notice………….?

  • See if you can find them here: http://www.ego4u.com/en/cram-up/grammar

  • Juliette

    Please told me where I could find exercises about embedded questions.

  • Thanks Eduardo for your comment, much appreciated!

  • Eduardo

    I love the way you teach English and it’s easy to understand the topics. Great job!