So you’ve mastered asking questions in different tenses. You know when to use helping verbs and where to put them in the question. Your word order is correct. But somehow your questions still sound a bit… unfriendly. When learning a new language it’s important to know not just how to be grammatically correct but also how to sound polite and friendly. This is especially critical if you use English at work. Let’s look at how we can form polite, friendly questions.
The best way to start a polite question is with a phrase like these:
- Do you know …
- Could/can you tell me …
- I’d like to know …
- I was wondering …
- I’m not sure …
Then we use a question word like how, where, when, who, why and so on. If you would like to ask a question that has a yes/no answer, you can use if or whether as the question word.
Next, state the information you would like to know, but do not use question word order. The structure of this part of the question is exactly the same as a normal sentence. For example:
- Can you tell me + when + the train arrives?
- I’d like to know + where + the toilets are.
- Do you know + if + there is a delay?
- I was wondering + why + he hasn’t a letter.
We don’t need to use question word order or helping verbs after these introductory phrases. Here are some more examples to show the differences between a direct question and a more polite (indirect) question:
- When does the train arrive? –> Can you tell me when the train arrives?
- Where are the toilets? –> I’d like to know where the toilets are.
- Is there a delay? –> Do you know if there is a delay?
- Why hasn’t he sent a letter? –> I was wondering why he hasn’t sent a letter.
If you’re not sure how to change a direct question into a more polite indirect question, you can think what the answer of the question would be and then use the same sentence structure:
|Direct Question||Answer||Indirect Question|
|When does the train arrive?||The train arrives at 10.||Can you tell me when the train arrives?|
|Where are the toilets?||The toilets are on the left.||I’d like to know where the toilets are.|
|Is there a delay?||There is a delay.||Do you know if there is a delay?|
|Why hasn’t he sent a letter?||He hasn’t sent a letter because he has been busy.||I was wondering why he hasn’t sent a letter.|
With these three building blocks you’ll instantly make your questions more polite and friendly. Can you think of any more polite questions? Or do you know any other phrases to start an indirect question? Write them in the comment box below.
If you’d like to recap how to form questions in the present simple, check out this article.