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What Is an Embedded Question?

A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

An embedded question is a question that forms a clause in a greater sentence. These kinds of questions could be called “indirect questions,” in that the question itself often changes form and gets placed into a more developed context, often for purposes of politeness of refining spoken language. Linguists and other experts think of an embedded question as a type of noun clause that plays a role within a complex sentence.

One type of embedded question is a question that gets embedded in another question. These are common types of embedded questions. For example, an English speaker might ask another, “Could you tell me what time it is?” rather than asking “What time is it?” The former structure is an example of an embedded question, where the question word, “where,” does not come at the beginning of the sentence. This example shows how the form of the sentence changes when the speaker uses an embedded question; as in many other cases, this also shows how the longer form presents a question more politely.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Another kind of embedded question is formed inside of a statement. These types of questions often include prefixes to sentences such as “I wonder” or “I know.” For example, if an English speaker says, “I wonder where my keys are?” instead of, “Where are my keys?” they are embedding the question in the longer form sentence. Sentences using the word “know” may be more abstracted forms of question embedding. Someone who says, “I don’t know where my keys are.” is also implicitly asking about the location of the keys, albeit not as directly as in the above example using the word “wonder.”

A further way that sentences often change with this technique revolves around the uses of the simple words “it,” which will refer to a noun, and “is,” a form of the verb “be.” For example, when a person says “Do you know what time it is?” instead of “What time is it?” the order of the words “it” and “is” gets switched. This is one confusing element of the English language that often confounds language learners. Displaying embedded questions next to direct questions is one way for language instructors to present the critical difference between these two forms.

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