Advanced Mistakes 1: Embedded Questions in English

So you’ve been learning English for a while now. You feel confident when you speak, you’ve mastered most of the grammar, and your vocabulary is pretty vibrant. What’s left to learn?

As a teacher, I’ve worked with students of all levels, including very advanced English learners who are fluent and turn out near-perfect sentences. But in general, they all make the same few mistakes.

This is a series for any English learners at an advanced level who are looking to perfect their language skills. In it, I’ll take a look at some of the mistakes that advanced learners tend to make. Let’s start off with embedded questions.

I’ll speak a bit about what embedded questions are and why they’re useful first. If you know about all that, feel free to skip straight down to the section “The mistake advanced learners make”.

What is an embedded question?

An embedded question is a question that occurs within another question, or within a statement.

For example:

Instead of the simple question “Where is the train station?”, you could say:

“Do you know where the train station is?” (embedded question within a question)

And instead of simply saying “I don’t know.”, the person you’ve asked can say:

“I don’t know where the train station is.” (embedded question within a statement)

Why would I use that when I can just use a simple question or statement?

Embedding a question within another question is nice because it allows me to ask my question less directly (something we English speakers love), which makes them less abrupt or harsh. You can therefore use them when you’re trying to be more polite.

They are also really common in everyday speech. For example, if I want to say that I don’t know something and I want to specify what information it is that I don’t know, I might say:

“I don’t know what that is.” (From “What is that?”)

Or maybe getting an answer to my question is not really my priority. Maybe I just want to express confusion or disbelief, like in:

“I wonder where she went.” (From “Where did she go?”)

“I can’t imagine how he arrived so quickly.” (From: “How did he arrive so quickly?”)

The mistake advanced learners make

The mistake most of my advanced learners make when using this construction is that they use the incorrect word order. Instead of using the word order specific to embedded questions, they use the word order that they would use in a normal question.

What does that look like? Here are a few variations on this mistake. All of these sentences – the questions (Q) and the corresponding answers (A) – are incorrect in terms of their word order.

Q: Do you know where are we going? (incorrect)
A: Yes, I know where are we going. (incorrect)

Q: Do you know where is the train station? (incorrect)
A: No, I don’t know where is the train station. (incorrect)

Q: Could you tell me what time does the train leave? (incorrect)
A: Sorry, I don’t know what time does the train leave. (incorrect)

So what is the correct word order then? Let’s take a look.

INCORRECT: Do you know where are we going?
CORRECT: Do you know where we are going?

INCORRECT: Yes, I know where are we going.
CORRECT: Yes, I know where we are going.

INCORRECT: Do you know where is the train station?
CORRECT: Do you know where the train station is?

INCORRECT: I don’t know where is the train station.
CORRECT: I don’t know where the train station is.

INCORRECT: Could you tell me what time does the train leave?
CORRECT: Could you tell me what time the train leaves?

INCORRECT: I don’t know what time does the train leave.
CORRECT: I don’t know what time the train leaves.

The explanation

Rather than simply plugging the embedded question “Where are we going?” into a main question like “Do you know…” or “Could you tell me…”, we need to change the word order of the embedded question.

Let’s break it down. First, we start with our main question, like:

Do you know
Could you tell me

Then, we add our question word:

Do you know where
Could you tell me what time

After that comes our subject:

Do you know where the train station
Could you tell me what time the train

Then we have our verb:

Do you know where the train station is?
Could you tell me what time the train leaves?

Question words include: “what”, “where”, “when”, “who”, “why”, and “how” – but embedded questions can also use “whether” and “if”, as in:

Do you know if he is here?
Do you know whether she likes coffee?

As you can see, we’ve got more than just a question word, subject, and verb. We’ve also got some extra information, like “here” and “last night”.

What do we do with this extra information? We add it onto the end, following the verb (like in the examples above).

A few more examples

Do you remember when Anne’s birthday is?
Can you remind me where we keep the bottle opener?
Can you tell me where the gym is?

That’s all for today. Keep an eye out for future posts in the “Advanced Mistakes” series, and happy embedding!

Photo courtesy of: https://pixabay.com/en/question-mark-pile-question-mark-1495858/
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