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Do You Know What an Indirect Question Is?

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Imagine that your friend is starting a new job today. She is traveling to work by train. She takes the F train to West 4th Street. When she leaves the station, her cell phone signal fails. So, she asks a stranger for information:

Excuse me, where is MacDougal Street? Can you tell me where MacDougal Street is?

You just heard a question asked in two ways. Did you hear the difference?

The first was a direct question; the second was an indirect question. In today’s program, we will talk about indirect questions.

What's an indirect question?

Indirect questions are a more polite way to ask for information or make requests. We often use them when asking something of strangers or people we do not know well, including coworkers. We also use them when asking for favors from friends or when we want to avoid sounding demanding.

When we make requests in English, we usually use the modal verbs can, could and would. We also use these modals to begin many indirect questions.

Here are a few common question phrases for indirect questions:

Can/Could you tell me…?

Do you know…?

Would you mind…?

Do you have any idea…?

Would it be possible…?

Forming indirect questions

To form an indirect question, we start with phrases like these. Then, we add direct questions to them, but the word order changes.

Listen to our earlier direct and indirect questions again.

Here’s the direct question:

Where is MacDougal Street?

And the indirect question:

Can you tell me where MacDougal Street is?

You should notice two things about the indirect question:

First, it begins with the phrase “Can you tell me…?” Second, the rest of the question -- where MacDougal Street is -- does not use the verb-subject word order of a normal question. It uses the word order of a statement and it is a noun clause.

So, to form an indirect question, again start with an indirect question phrase, such as “Can you tell me…?”

Then, for information requests, add one of the six question words: where, what, when, who, why or how. We call these “wh-question” words. For example, you heard the word where in “where MacDougal Street is.”

“Yes or no” questions

But, some indirect questions do not contain wh-question words. These are direct “yes or no” questions that we convert into indirect questions. For example:

Has the game started yet?

That is a “yes or no” question. To form these into indirect questions, we start with an indirect question phrase, such as “Do you know…?” and then begin the noun clause with if or whether. Let’s listen to the direct “yes or no” question again:

Has the game started yet?

This example uses the present perfect verb has started.

Now, let’s listen to how it changes into an indirect question using if and whether:

Do you know if the game has started yet?

Do you know whether the game has started yet?

You’ll notice that, in the indirect examples, the has from the verb is no longer separated by the subject, like in question word order. Instead it appears together, as it would in a statement.

Here’s another example of a “yes or no” question. The direct question uses the present continuous verb are coming:

Are they coming with us?

In the indirect question, the words “are coming” go together and we use if or whether. Listen:

Do you know whether they’re coming with us?

Many English learners forget to keep statement word order in the noun clauses of indirect questions. For “yes or no” questions, they may also forget to use if or whether. For example, they may say: “Do you know are they coming with us?”

But now that you know the correct way, you can avoid these two common mistakes.

Asking for favors

Indirect questions are also useful when asking friends or other people we know for a favor, especially when the favor requires a lot of effort. Let’s listen to someone asking a favor directly:

Can you please help me move on Saturday?

Even with “please” in the direct question, it sounds a little too direct for such a major request. Now, listen to the same question introduced by the indirect phrases: “Is there any chance…?” and “Would it be possible…?”

Is there any chance you could help me move on Saturday?

Would it be possible for you to help me move on Saturday?

These indirect questions let the listener know that you understand that the favor is a big commitment.

You can also ask a big favor indirectly with the phrase “I was wondering…”:

I was wondering if you could help me move on Saturday.

Notice anything different here? This example does not have a question mark. It is not a question. However, when we use “I wonder” or “I was wondering,” in a statement, we usually are seeking information, just like a question does.

Using “I was wondering” is a very common way to politely ask a favor or seek information in English without sounding too demanding.

Here’s another example. Listen to the direct question:

Did you finish the report?

And the indirect question:

I was wondering if you finished the report.

Now, you try it!

OK, now you try it. Make these direct questions into indirect questions:

What time is it?

Where is the music shop?

Why did you move to D.C.?

Can we meet on Monday?

Can you loan me your car?

Don’t forget to use statement word order after the indirect question phrases. And remember that “yes or no” direct questions get if or whether in indirect questions.

Well, that’s all the time we have today. Would you mind telling us if you liked the program?

I’m Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

Some examples you heard today:

Direct Questions

Indirect Questions

Where is MacDougal Street?

Can you tell me where MacDougal Street is?

Has the game started yet?

Do you know if/whether the game has started yet?

Are they coming with us?

Do you know if/whether they’re coming with us?

Can you help me move on Saturday?

Is there any chance you could help me move on Saturday?

Did you finish the report?

I was wondering if you finished the report.

Words in This Story

coworker – n. someone you work with

favor – n. a kind or helpful act that you do for someone

phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence

clause – a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb

convert – v. to change something into a different form or so that it can be used in a different way

commitment – n. a promise to do or give something

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