How can you politely ask a question in English? English doesn’t have a formal “you” form like many other languages, so how should you ask your boss for a day off? How should you ask a stranger where the nearest bus stop is? Use an indirect question!
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?
Direct questions are fine when you are talking to your friends or family. Knowing how to ask good questions will help you have great conversations. But for more formal situations, 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 you tell me…
- I was wondering…
- Is it possible to…
Let’s try our direct questions with these extra phrases.
- “Where is the bus stop?” becomes “Do you know where the bus stop is?”
The verb “is” returns to its regular place after the subject. Don’t say, “Can you tell me where is the bus stop?”
- “How much does that book cost?” becomes “Can 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,” like we do in a direct question. So don’t say, “Can 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?”
- “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.
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?
You can also use your polite phrase followed by a question word – who, what, where, when, why or how, like this:
- 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?
Making polite, indirect sentences in English is easy! You might need to use indirect questions in formal emails, and now you can! 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 can take a day off?” I hope the answer will be, “Yes!”