Indirect Questions: How Do I Ask Polite Questions in English?

Have you ever wondered how you can politely ask a question in English? Using an indirect question is one great way to do this. Especially since English doesn’t have a formal “you” form like many other languages. So you might wonder,   how should you ask your boss for a day off? How should you ask a stranger where the nearest bus stop is?

Asking questions puts you in a position where you are the one who needs information or help. So, it’s important to do this the appropriate way. And different ways of asking questions can help. Knowing how to ask good questions will help you have great conversations.

Asking Questions in Different Ways

When you ask a direct question, you ask directly, or simply, for exactly what you need.

  • Where is the bus stop?
  • How much does that book cost?
  • Are you working this weekend?
  • Can I use your phone?
  • What time is it? 
  • Where’s the bathroom? 
  • Where are you? 
  • Are we done? 

Direct questions are fine when you are talking to your friends or family. And they are also very much appropriate when paired with the right tone of voice. But how about if you are in a more formal situation? Or if you are asking someone you’re not really close or familiar with? What if you are in a cocktail party or a work convention? These are situations when it’s more polite to use an indirect question. 

How to Form Indirect Questions

Indirect questions are questions with extra words and phrases to make your question softer and less demanding. When you use these extra phrases, the rest of your sentence will return to the regular word order of a normal positive sentence. You don’t need to switch the subject and the verb like you do when you make a direct question. Try using some of these phrases to create indirect questions:

  • Do you know….
  • Can/could you tell me… *”Can” is slightly more casual, while “could” is more polite.
  • I was wondering…
  • Is it possible to…

Let’s Try!

Let’s try our direct questions with these extra phrases.

  • “Where is the bus stop?” becomes “Do you know where the bus stop is?”

Do take note that the verb “is” returns to its regular place after the subject. You don’t say, “Can you tell me where is the bus stop?” The question above, “Do you know where the bus stop is?” is grammatically correct composition of the question. 

  • “How much does that book cost?” becomes “Could you tell me how much that book costs?” When we use these extra phrases with a question, we don’t need the helping verbs “do” or “does,” the same way we do in a direct question. So don’t say, “Could you tell me how much does that book cost?”
  • “Are you working this weekend?” becomes “I was wondering if you are working this weekend.” The subject and verb return to their normal places in the sentence. Don’t say, “I was wondering if are you working this weekend?” Note that when you start with “I was wondering,” the question is no longer a question. It becomes a statement and takes a period at the end, not a question mark.
  • “Can I use your phone?” becomes “Is it possible for me to use your phone?” This sentence changes because you have a different subject now. In the direct question, the subject was “I,” and now the subject is “it,” and “it” is the possibility of using the phone. “I” becomes the receiver of the action and changes to “for me.” The sentence becomes more polite when “I” isn’t the subject anymore.

Some More Phrases You Can Use to Ask Indirections Questions

Here are some more examples of phrases that you can add to a direct question so that you can transform it to an indirect question. And in result, sound more polite.

  • Is there any chance…
  • Do you have any idea…
  • Could you tell me…
  • May I ask… 
  • I was hoping… 
  • I’d like to ask… 

And here are some of the example indirect questions you can form with them: 

  • “Is there any chance you could show me the list again?” 
  • “Do you have any idea about this online news that was posted earlier?” 
  • “Hi! Could you show me the way back to my hotel?” 
  • “Could you tell me if there’s a bakery nearby?” 
  • “I was hoping to ask you, what happened yesterday at the bar?” 
  • “I’d like to ask you, which team are you rooting for?” 

Indirect Questions are Polite

Do you see how these extra phrases are more polite? They quietly ask for the listener’s attention before you ask your question. Your listener feels more respected when you soften your question like this. Indirect questions tell the other person that you‘re thankful for their help!

Other Ways to Ask Indirect Questions

A good word to use in an indirect question is “if.”  Instead of asking, “Where is the bathroom?” you could say, “Do you know if there is a bathroom here?” People can answer these “if” questions with a simple yes or no – very easy! Here are some examples with the word “if:”

  • “I was wondering if Dan is coming with us tonight?” 
  • “Do you know if that store sells shampoo?” 
  • “Can you tell me if you see the mailman drive by?
  • “Do you have any idea if she’s coming in today?” 
  • “I was wondering if you’re passing by the grocery tonight?” 
  • “I was hoping to know if you’ll be driving to the wedding this weekend?”

You can also use your polite phrase followed by a question word – who, what, where, when, why or how. Here are some examples:

  • Do you know when the store opens?
  • Can you tell me how to lock this door?
  • I was wondering why you didn’t wait for me.
  • Do you know who ate all the cake?
  • Do you know where the bathroom is?
  • Could you show me how to operate this machine?
  • May I know why you were not able to send that email out in time?

And don’t forget, you can also add “excuse me” to be even more polite. Now you can go see your boss and say “Excuse me, I was wondering if I could ask you about taking a day off.” I hope the answer will be, “Yes!”

You see, making polite, indirect sentences in English is easy!

If you need to use indirect questions in formal emails, and you can!  Just check out that lesson, it’s a great way to learn written English too. 

Remember, practice makes perfect. So don’t forget to apply what you have just learned in your daily conversations at work or in your personal interactions. You can apply these learnings in work and personal emails too. Have fun and until our next lesson! 

How to Answer the Question “How Are You?”

Picture of Gabby Wallace, M.Ed TESOL

Gabby Wallace, M.Ed TESOL

About the Author
Gabby Wallace is the Founder of Go Natural English, where you can quickly improve your confidence speaking English through advanced fluency practice. Even if you don't have much time, this is the best place for improving your English skills. Millions of global intermediate - advanced English students are learning with Gabby's inspiring, clear, and energetic English lessons. Gabby has a Masters Degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Boston University and 20+ years experience helping students become fluent through her online courses and membership program.

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