57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing

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Indirect Questioning

Written indirect questions either report someone else’s question or introduce a new topic. Direct questions only do these in special circumstances.

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CONSTRUCTION OF INDIRECT QUESTIONS

Indirect questions differ from other types of indirect speech in both their construction and some of their uses, and they can as a result be problematic in both areas. This post looks in detail at both the construction and the use of indirect questions. For broader information about indirect speech in general, see 127. When to Use Indirect Speech and 150. Verbs Used with Indirect Speech.

To appreciate how indirect questions are structured, consider this example: 

(a) Visitors will ask where the library is. 

The underlined indirect question here has the following different features compared to its “direct” equivalent where is the library?1

1. A question word at the start.

2. No verb before the subject (the library).

3. Inability to stand alone as a sentence (replaceable by a noun).

4. A full stop at the end, not a question mark.

Point 1 is relevant because direct questions do not always have a question word at the start: they have a verb there when the expected answer is “yes” or “no”. Indirect questions of the yes/no kind, of course, need the question word whether or if  (see 99. When to Use “whether … or …). Note that that is not possible before the question word of an indirect question – you just need the question word by itself.

Point 2 implies that indirect questions always contain a grammatical subject. This is true except when their verb is in the infinitive (“to”) form. For more about this kind of question, see 105. Questions with a “to” Verb.

Point 3 means indirect question sentences need other words besides the question itself (indirect questions by themselves are possible only in headings). These other words must contain a verb, and usually begin the sentence, with no comma separating them from the question.

The verb or one of the other words outside an indirect question will usually express a kind of asking or explaining (see 150. Verbs Used with Indirect Speech). In (a) there is the asking verb ask. Other common asking verbs with indirect questions include ENQUIRE, EXAMINE, INVESTIGATE, PONDER, QUESTION and WONDER.

Asking words that are not verbs are often nouns. The following sentence has the asking noun issue:

(b) The ISSUE is why bees are less numerous today.

Explaining words suggest that the person uttering the question already knows the answer and is going to give it rather than discover it. Questions after them seem always to be indirect. Explaining words again do not have to be verbs:

(c) I wish to DEMONSTRATE how dangerous driving at 50 km/h can be.

(d) It is UNKNOWN where Homer lived.

In (d) the negative explaining word unknown is an adjective, typical of sentences starting It is … . More on indirect questions in such sentences can be read in 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1 and 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb.

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USES OF INDIRECT QUESTIONS IN FORMAL WRITING

Like all indirect speech, indirect questions in formal writing have both reporting and non-reporting uses.

1. Indirect Questions Used for Reporting

This kind of indirect question is found in all types of formal writing, but especially in academic literature reviews, since these are by definition about the thoughts of large numbers of other writers. An indirect reporting question in a literature review might look like this:

(e) Smith (2014: p. 49) clearly explains why sports personalities turn to performance-enhancing drugs.

Advice on naming an original speaker in a literature review – Smith (2014: p.49) in (f) – is given in the post 76. Tenses of Citation verbs.

Like other types of indirect speech, indirect questions are an alternative to their direct equivalent as a way of reporting other people’s words, but are the default option: always preferred unless there is a special reason for having a direct question instead. Direct reporting questions are needed with original wording that should not be changed – for example because it is clever, concise, striking or difficult to paraphrase (see 79. Quotation-Writing Problems and 127. When to Use Indirect Speech).

Three particular types of reporting in formal writing which are unlikely to involve direct questions are summarising, surmising or translating the wording of an original question. In all of these situations, the original wording of the question is by definition different from that of the report. Consider this:

(f) Columbus wondered whether China was reachable from the east. 

The underlined question here cannot be in direct form because it is unlikely to be the actual words of Columbus. He spoke a different language, and there is a high probability that his original words are not known at all, or that the question was asked many times in many different ways. Literary writers might use their imagination to invent original words for direct quotation, but that is not appropriate in professional writing. 

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2. Indirect Questions of the Non-Reporting Kind

In spoken English, non-reporting indirect questions show politeness, like this:

(g) Could you tell me where the library is?

This is not reporting because there is no earlier first utterance of the question – this is the first utterance. Note that the question mark at the end is generated not by the indirect question but by the other part of the sentence.

In formal writing, on the other hand, a non-reporting indirect question like that in (g) would rarely be found because it expects the addressee to answer the question. However, non-reporting indirect questions with a different purpose are found quite commonly instead. One major purpose is topic-introducing, like this:

(h) The question is why bees are less numerous today.

The suggestion here is that an answer to the question is about to follow.

This purpose is also achievable with direct questions (Why are bees less numerous today?), but they are much less common in English than in some other languages, as they are considered rather informal. An example of a text introduced by an indirect question is in the post 138. Test your Command of English. For more about informality, see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You” and 108. Formal & Informal Words.

An alternative non-reporting use of indirect questions in formal writing is what I call “speech characterisation” – saying something about the question rather than promising an answer. Usually, the characterisation will be in the part of the sentence that is outside the question, e.g. it is mystifying why … . Sentence (d) above seems of this kind. Speech characterisation with other kinds of indirect speech is illustrated in the post 127. When to Use Indirect Speech.

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THE LINGUISTIC VARIABILITY OF TOPIC-INTRODUCING INDIRECT QUESTIONS

There are various ways of writing a topic-introducing indirect question. Some involve the words accompanying the question and some the question itself.

1. Alternative Wording Alongside the Question

No wording at all is needed alongside an indirect question when it is a title or heading. Elsewhere there are various possibilities resulting from the variety of ways to avoid and we. Possible wordings include the following:

(h) The question is why bees are less numerous today.

(i) … raises the question of why bees …

(j) It is (now) necessary to consider why …

(k) Consideration will (now) be given to why …

(l) This essay/report will consider why …

Synonyms of key words above are also possible, for example matter or issue instead of question, important or useful instead of necessary, and an investigation (made into …) or an examination (made of …) instead of consideration (given to …). More can be read about this last kind of wording in the Guinlist posts 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision”? and 141. Ways of Using MAKE.

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2. Alternative Wording of the Question Itself

Indirect questions were said above to always need a question word at the start. However, such words can be paraphrased by nouns. For example, why means the same as reason, and where equals place. How by itself corresponds to way (though often the verb in the question is made into an “action” noun instead – see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns); and how + adjective – e.g. how important (see 94. Essay Instruction Words) – is replaced by the noun derived from the adjective (importance). Here are some examples of indirect questions beginning with a noun: 

(m) It is necessary to understand the reason for bees being less numerous today.

(n) This essay will examine ways of controlling (the control of) traffic growth.

Contexts where noun substitution is not possible are after some asking words, such as WONDER; after it is + ADJECTIVE, e.g. it is interesting where … (see 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1, #8); and directly before a verb with to, e.g. whether to continue (see 105. Questions with a “to” Verb). A technical discussion of question nouns is in the Guinlist article How Syntax can Highlight Useful EAP Vocabulary. To finish, here is an exercise similar to one in my grammar book which gives practice with question nouns:

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EXERCISE: Rewrite the following so that they have no question word.

1. It is necessary to know what an indirect question is.

2. Footballers must learn when it is best to pass the ball.

3. A major issue was how many attempts to allow.

4. A problem is deciding whether help should be permitted.

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ANSWERS

1. It is necessary to know the nature/definition of an indirect question.

2. Footballers must learn the best time/moment to pass the ball.

3. A major issue was the number of attempts to allow.

4. A problem is deciding the permissibility of help. 

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1 An additional feature is sometimes found in indirect questions like (a): the need to adjust pronouns, verb tenses and the like to fit the time and place of the writer. For example, if the question in (a) had our library, the corresponding direct question would probably have your instead of our.

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