Grammar-QuizzesClausesSubordinate Clauses › Wh-Questions

Subordinate Wh-Questions

Restate a question within a clause (reported or indirect questions)

friend greeting
 

 

 
QUOTED WH-QUESTION

An interrogative pronounwho, what, where, when, why, or how—is used in an "open interrogative", a question which accepts a wide range of answers. (Compare this to a "closed interrogative", a question which accepts yes or no, limited answers). A wh-question may be restated within a clause.         

MAIN CLAUSE QUOTED SPEECH

My friend always asks,

"Where have you been?"

My friend always asks,

"What have you been doing?"

My friend inquires,

"How is your family?"

My friend often asks,

"When can you join me for coffee?"

My friend asked,

"Who have you been hanging out with?"

My friend asked,

"Who cuts your hair?"

REPORTED WH-QUESTION

In a reported question, the wh-word (used in the question) becomes the connective pronoun that joins (subordinates) the question-clause to the main clause. The wording of the subordinated clause returns to statement word order (SVO)¹, and the auxiliary verb is "reunited" with the rest of the verb.

MAIN CLAUSE REPORTED SPEECH

My friend always asks

where I have been.

(location)

My friend always asks

what I have been doing.

(which activity)

My friend inquires

how my family is. 

(manner/method)

My friend often asks

when I can join her for coffee.

(timing)

My friend asked

who I had been hanging out with. 

with whom I had been spending time. (for.)
(person)

My friend asked

who cut my hair.  (single action)

who had been cutting my hair. (routine)

(person)

 

¹(SVO) is typically used to represent standard word order. To be correct, it should not mix word name and functions, for example, SubjPredicateComplement (SPC) or  NounVerbObject (NP-V-Obj)

A quoted wh-question begins with a main clause that mentions: (1) the speaker; (2) a verb expressing inquiry, mostly the verb ask; (3) a comma; (4) the exact words of the quote enclosed in quotation marks. Note that the quoted question may also be placed before the main clause: "How are you?" my friend asked. (See Quotation Marks regarding punctuation.)

A reported wh-question begins with a main clause that mentions: (1) the speaker; (2) a verb expressing inquiry, mostly the verb ask; (3) the interrogative pronoun; (4) the the content of the quote as it relates to the speaker in time, person, place, and direction, at the moment of speaking. (See Deixis regarding adjusting tense and perspective.)      

clausal head v. subordinator — in reported questions, the interrogative pronoun at the front (head) of the clause becomes the connector that relates the content of the subordinate clause to the main clause. An interrogative pronoun (who, what, where, when, why, or how)  is called a clausal head because it carries meaning as the head (as part) of the subordinated clause. (It cannot be omitted.) In contrast, a subordinator (that) marks subordination but is not actually part of the clause. It carries no meaning. Compare: *I know who the president is.  I know that the president is a nit-wit.   The clausal head who cannot be omitted, but  that can be omitted without a loss of meaning.

Similar to a clausal head is a phrasal head, in which the head of the phrase is the connective that carries meaning as part of the phrase. See How is a preposition a connective?

The main clause (matrix clause) is the independent clause and the subordinate clause (embedded clause) is the dependent clause. In reported question, no additional punctuation (quotation marks, comma, or question mark) is used. Related page Quotation Marks.

 

Ask Synonyms

Related page: Said Synonyms.

 

 

 

 

 

Subordinate Wh-Clauses (adjunct)

Subject-auxiliary Inversion

 

 

Word Order / Person & Number

SUBJECT–AUX INVERSION

The subordinate clause changes from question to statement word order: (1) the word order changes from  [Aux-Subj-Verb] to [S- Aux+Verb]. That is, the subject is placed before the verb in the subordinate clause.

MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATE CLAUSE

Remove punctuation.

My friend always asks,

 

"How is she?"

(1) subord. marker¹

 

how is she

(2) inversion [Subj-Aux]

        move the subject forward
how
she is 

(3) person & number

 

(4) tense

 

(5) time / place

 

 

My friend always asks

 

how she is.

PERSON & NUMBER ADJUSTMENT

The subordinate clause also adjusts in person and number: (2) personal pronouns (i.e., I→you, me→you, we→you, etc.) and verb number (e.g., I am→you are)adjust  to the  perspective of the speaker.                     

MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATE CLAUSE

 

My friend always asks,

 

"How are you?"           

(1) subord. marker¹

 

how are you

(2) inversion [Subj-Aux]

         move the subject forward
how you are

(3) person & number

        change this to
how   I am

(4) tense

 

(5) time / place

 

 

My friend always asks

 

how I am.

 

¹subordinate marker – who, what, where, why, when, how
perspective (N) – point of view; how someone relates to surroundings: person (you, i we); place (here, there); time (now, then); direction (coming, going) See deixis.

 

 

 

Time / Location

TIME ADJUSTMENT

The subordinate clause adjusts in time: (3) adverbs and prepositional phrases adjust if the verb in the main clause is an earlier time. 

MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATE CLAUSE

Remove punctuation.

My friend asked,

 

"Where is she now?                 

(1) subord. marker¹

 

where is she now

(2) word order [Subj-Pred]

            move the subject forward
where she is now

(3) person & number

 

      

(4) tense

                 change this to
where she was now            

(5) time / place

                         change this to 
where she was then

 

My friend asked

 

where she was then.

LOCATION ADJUSTMENT

The subordinate clause adjusts in location and direction: (4) adverbs and prepositional phrases for location are changed to reflect something that is near or far from the speaker.

MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATE CLAUSE

 

My friend asked,

 

"When is she coming here?   

(1) subord. marker¹

 

when is she coming here

(2) word order [Subj-Pred]

               move the subject forward
when she is coming here

(3) person & number

 

(4) tense

                 change this to
when she was coming here

(5) time / place

                         change this to
when she was going² there

 

My friend asked

 

when she was going there.

 

¹subordinate marker– who, what, where, why, when, how

²direction: change coming to going if both speaker and listener do not share a location 

 

 

 

 

Deixis /ˈdaɪk sɪs/

Adjusting perspective

 

Deictic words

Deictic words, such as pronouns, time and location words, require contextual information; they are relative to the speaker.  From my point of view ⇒ "I am here now."   From your point of view (same time but different place) ⇒ "You are there now."   From their point of view (different time and different place) ⇒ "She was there then."

 

Person Deixis

MY CENTER YOUR, HIS, HER, THEIR CENTER

I / me →  you

You  →  I / me 

We / our   →  you

You  → we / us 

I / me →  he / him 

He / him  → I / me 

I / me→ she / her

She / her  → I / me 

We / us →  they / them

They / them  → we / us 

I / me / we / us → it 

It  → I / me / we / us

deixis
 

 

Time  and Place Deixis

EARLIER NOW LATER

before then
earlier

now →   

after then
later

recently

today  

in the future

 

tomorrow  

the next day

the day before

yesterday 

 

last week
that week

this week  

next week
the following week

CENTER  — NEAR FAR

here →   

there 

this city

that city 

these towns

those towns 

to my house

from my house 

come

go

 

Deixis (N) / deictic (Adj) – indicating identity, time, or location from the perspective of one or more speakers. "Words are deictic if their semantic meaning is fixed but their denotational meaning varies depending on time and/or place."  (Wiki – deixis)

Also see Prepositions for Time,   Prepositions for Place, Adverbs for Time  and Pop-Q "Deictic"

 

 

 

 

 

Subordinate Wh-Clauses

Verb Tense Agreement

 

 

 

Verb Tense —  Backshifting

QUESTION – VERB TENSE

The verb tense in the subordinate clause adjusts (backshifts) to the point of view of the speaker: the past is used for an earlier event, the past perfect is used toemphasize a difference in time. Past perfect is not used if the time relationship is clear already.     

PRESENT

"How many children do you have? "
  Aux + Subj + Verb           move the aux verb before the subject  

PRESENT

"How are you   now ?"

PRESENT PROGRESSIVE

"Where are you going today?"

PAST

" Whom did you call yesterday?"

PAST PROGRESSIVE

" Whom were you calling last week?"

PRESENT PERFECT

" Where have you been recently?"

PRESENT PERFECT PROGRESSIVE

" How have you been doing so far?"

PRESENT

"How hot is the sun?" (general truth)
COMPARE: "How hot is the weather today?"  (at the moment) 

"What do you think?" (permanently)
COMPARE: "What are you thinking?"  (at the moment) 

EMBEDDED VERB TENSE

An exception to this occurs when using a verb that expresses a general truth; that is, something that exists, is timeless, is a state of being (sensory, cognitive, possession, emotion, measurement) In such cases, the verb remains in its present tense form.

PRESENT–GENERAL TRUTH

She asked how many children       I  have.
 Subj + Verb                                   move aux verb after subject 

PAST

She asked how I         was then.

PAST PERSPECTIVE

She asked where I was going that day.

PAST PERFECT

She asked whom I  called / had called the day before.

PAST PROGRESSIVE

She asked whom I was/ had been calling last week.

PAST PERFECT

She asked where I was / had been recently.  [lately]

PAST PROGRESSIVE OR PAST PERFECT PROGRESSIVE

She asked how I was doing / had been doing up until then.  [so far]

PRESENT OR PAST

She asked how hot the sun is.    (general truth)
She asked how hot the weather was (at the moment)

She asked what I think(permanently)
She asked what I was/ *am thinking. (at the moment)

 

General Truth – The simple present tense is used to state fact, how things exist or behave. The verb in a noun clause stays in present tense to express mental states and attitudes such as —thinks, recognizes, understands — which are more permanent than what a person —is thinking,is recognizing, is understanding— which are more temporary and "at the moment".  See Stative Verbs

Related pages: Same Time vs. Earlier Agreement |   Formal vs. Informal AgreementAdv for Degree  (how hot

 

 

 

 

 

 

Subordinated Wh-Questions (adjunct)

Adding a personal comment

 

 

 

Subordinate Wh-clauses

QUOTED WH-QUESTION

In a WH-question, the question word becomes the pronoun that joins the clause to a main sentence.

"Where did he go?"

"How long were you there?"

"Which way shall we turn?"

"What time is it?"

"Where are you tonight?"

"Who is she?"

"Why are you always late?"

COMMENT WITH WH-QUESTION

The quote can be placed within a statement. The speaker restates the quote and adds a personal comment. The same tense, pronoun and adverb changes need to be applied.

I don't know where he went(go → went)
Where he went is a mystery to me.

I can't remember how long I was here(there → here.)
How long I was here is something I can't remember.

I have no idea which way we should turn.
Which way we should turn is something I don't know.

Can you tell me what time it is?
What time it is, is a mystery to me. 

(A comma separates the unusual occurrence of two auxiliaries.)

He couldn't tell me where he was that night(tonight → that night.)
Where he was that night was something he couldn't tell me.

Do you happen to know who she is(there → here)
Who she is, is a question I can't answer. (Add a comma between is is.)

She couldn't answer why she is always late(Do not change verb tense for "general truth".)
Why she is always late is a mystery to her.  

 

Related page That/What Clauses  | Adjusting perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Subordinate Wh-Clause (adjunct)

With Question Word Order

 

 

 

Is this an example of our language that is changing or an error?

QUESTION WITHIN A STATEMENT

More frequently, we hear an embedded question with [Aux+Subj+Verb] word order rather than [Subj+Aux-Verb] word order. This usage is creeping into formal situations such as political questiones and news reports. Is it an error or intentional?  

ORATORICAL DEVICE?

Let's think carefully about WHERE ARE we going as a country.  (emphasis)  [Aux-S-V] 

PARENTHETICAL SPEECH?

Let's think carefully, where are we going as a country. 

Where, let's think carefully, are we going as a country?

THOUGHT SHIFT?

Let's think carefully…  Where  are we going as a country.
 (Mental shift and restart?)

PREFERRED USE

Let's think carefully about where we are going as a country.
[S-Aux-V]

QUESTION WITHIN A QUESTION

An embedded question with [Aux+Subj+Verb] word order doesn't seem to occur as much within a question as it does within a comment.  This usage occurs mostly in question. Why do you suppose the speaker is shifting from direct to reported question?

OCCASIONALLY HEARD OR USED

~Is there any doubt WHERE ARE we going as a country? [Aux-S-V] 

 

~Is there any doubt (pause) where are we going as a country?" [Aux-S-V] 

 

~Can you tell me WHO IS the better candidate?

~Do you know where DO WE turn for help? [Aux-S-V] 

PREFERRED USE

Let's think carefully about where we are going as a country.
  [S-Aux-V]

 

oratory (N) – the skill of making public questiones

oratorical device (expression) – a method used in speaking to make a stronger impact on the audience

parenthetical (Adj) – a comment which interrupts thought and which is set off with comma(s) [informal use]  See Comma-comments.

shift (N) – put something aside and replace it with something else

* not used / ~ used by some speakers but not by others (informal use)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Subordinated Wh-Questions (adjunct)

Shortened to an infinitive

 

 

 

Commenting on a Means or Method Question

REQUESTING INSTRUCTIONS

A WH-question that asks means or method (instructions) often includes the modals should or could.

"Where should you __ go?"
                           switch subj and aux verb     Aux + Subj + Verb

"How do you use an encyclopedia?method

"Which way shall we turn?"

"What time should we leave?"

"Where can I find a pharmacy?"

"Who shall we invite?"

"Why should we be late?" (This question asks about plans.)

COMMENTING ON REQUEST

The verb can be shortened to an infinitive (to + verb) in an embedded statement on means or method of doing something (instructions). 

I don't know where to go.
I don't know where    you should go.
                                   switch subj and aux verb   Subj + Verb

I can't remember how to use an encyclopedia.
I can't remember how I should use an encyclopedia.

I have no idea which way to turn.
I have no idea which way we should turn.

Can you tell me what time to leave?
Can you tell me what time we should leave?  

He couldn't tell me where  to find a pharmacy.
He couldn't tell me where I could find a pharmacy.

Let's decide who to invite.
Let's decide who we should invite.

She couldn't answer why to be late.  (This is not a statement of means or method.)
 

 

 

 

 

 

Common Mistakes

Errors and Solutions

 

 

Error and Solution

ERROR

~The man asked what time is it.  (word order)

This word orderis becoming more common among some speakers. Others judge it as awkward.

~She asked where are we going for lunch.   

This word tense use is becoming more common among some speakers. Others judge it as awkward.

SOLUTION

The man asked what time it was.

 

She asked where we were going for lunch. (asking plans) 

She asked where to go for lunch.   (asking instructions)

 

* not used / ~ used by some speakers; transitional usage

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Grammar Notes (Advanced)

Traditional and Linguistic Description

 

 

Traditional / ESL and Linguistic Descriptions

TRADITIONAL & ESL DESCRIPTION

direct and Indirect question (Swan 274-6)

"Words that are spoken or thought in one place by one person may be reported in another place at a different time, and perhaps by another person. Because of this, there are often grammatical differences between direct and indirect question.
word orderWhere's Alice?  I asked where Alice was.
pronounsWho are you? He is asking who I am.
'here and now' words' —   How will you come here now? He asked I would go there then.
tense Where is he?  He asked where he was.
question marks — are omitted

Question-word clauses. Question-word clauses as objects  (Swan 485)

Clauses beginning with question words can refer both to questions and to the answers to questions. They often act as the objects of verbs.

  • They asked who will be there.
  • We wondered why he wasn't there yet.
  • He asked where we wanted to go.   
  • She explained the situation to us.

 

Indirect Speech – who, what, when, where, how
— conjunction (Swan 276) 
— subordinating conjunction (Azar 365)

 

12-2 Noun Clauses Beginning with a Question Word (Azar)

A. What she said to him surprised me.

In the above sentence, "what she said" is the subject.

B. I don't know where she lives.

In the above sentence, "where she lives"  is the object of the verb know. "Do not use question word order in a noun clause." That is, question form  [Aux S V] is changed to [S-V].

 

Note that in the Azar book, form and function are not distinguished. Most grammar systems agree that [A] What she said to him is a subject (a function); however, they would not call [B]where she is an "object". The term object is reserved for a noun or noun phrase that serves as the direct or indirect object.  (Even to him, (alternative wording for an indirect object) is not called an indirect object. It is a prepositional phrase that names the recipient or beneficiary of the action.)

Also see "Clause in clause".  (Swan 515)

LINGUISTIC DESCRIPTION

Direct reported question expresses the actual wording of the question.
Indirect reported question expresses the content of the question.  (Huddleston 11 §9)

The major difference between direct and indirect question is deixis. The deictic expressions are interpreted in relation to the original utterance, whereas in indirect question they are interpreted wholly or predominantly in relation to the act of reporting.  (1025)

deictic – specifying identity or spatial or temporal location from the perspective of one or more of the participants in an act of question or writing, in the context of either an external situation or the surrounding discourse, as we, you, here, there, now, then, this, that, the former, or the latter.

Interrogative content clauses. Subordinated Questions: The main structural difference between subordinate and main clause interrogatives is that subject-auxiliary inversion does not generally apply to the subordinate structure. (11 §5.1)

Subordinate Interrogatives mainly occur in complement function where they have to be licensed by an appropriate head:  [a particular verb or S-V wording]: ask, inquire, wonder investigate, know, find out, remember, tell, show, decide, determine, make up one's mind, agree, doubt, question, etc. (list of verbs 976)

Survey of constructions containing subordinate interrogatives. As complement or supplement  (Huddleston 11 §5.3.1)

  • Subject: Where he was is unclear.
  • Specifying predicative complement: The question is where he is.
  • Complex-transitive construction: They consider it unimportant where he is.
  • Internal complement licensed by the matrix verb: They investigated where he was.
  • Complement of a preposition: She was upset because of where he was. [required prep]
    They can't agree (about / as to / on) where he was. [optional prep.]
  • Complement of an adjective: They were interested in who would be coming.
  • Complement of a noun: The question what to do next was discussed at the meeting.
  • Supplements: They need to make a decision whether to proceed or stop.

(Huddleston 977-981)

who, what, when, where, how – markers of subordination in interrogative clauses (Huddleston 956)

 

Word Categories: N – Noun; V – Verb; Aux – Auxiliary; Adj – Adjective; Adv – Adverb; P –Preposition; Det –Determiner.

Phrasal Categories: NP – Noun Phrase; VP – Verb Phrase; AdjP – Adjective Phrase; AdvP – Adverb Phrase; PP – Prepositional Phrase; DP – Determinative Phrase.

Clausal Categories: Cls – clause; F – finite clause; NF – nonfinite clause (Ger – gerund; Inf – infinitive; PPart – past participle).

Word Functions: Subj – subject; Pred – predicate/predicator; Compcomplement: elements required by an expression to complete its meaning (DO – direct object; IO – indirect object);  Adjunctadjunct: elements not required by an expression to complete its meaning (Subord – subordinator; Coord – coordinator); Suplsupplement: a clause or phrase added onto a clause that is not closely related to the central thought or structure of the main clause.

 

 

 
  • Azar, Betty Schrampfer, and Stacy A. Hagen. Understanding and Using English Grammar. 4th ed., Pearson Education, 2009.
  • Biber, Douglas, and Stig Johansson, et al. Longman Grammar Of Spoken And Written English. Pearson Education, 1999.
  • "Deixis." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 May 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deixis. Accessed on 25 Aug. 2016.
  • Huddleston, Rodney D., and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2005.

 

 

 

 

 

Practice

"Busybody" 

busy body
 

Reporting What Someone Said

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check 1-15" button at the bottom, or click the "check" button as you go.

 

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.
on vacation?

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.

12.

13.

14.

15.

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 2

Lost and Found

chihuahua

 

 

Decide if the wording is formal (correct) .

  1. Select "correct" or "incorrect". 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" button to the left or the "check 11-20" button at the bottom.

 

16.
"Do you know what kind of dog is this?"  (formal)   (informal)

17.
"I really have no idea what this dog is called.  It looks like a mini-something."

   

18.
" The dog was running around outside."  
"Can you tell me where did you find it?"

   

19.
"The dog was sitting on the neighbor's lawn."
"I wonder whether is it your neighbor's?"

   

20.
"Let's go ask."
"Keep in mind that you can't keep it no matter how cute is it!"

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 3

What did you say?

dentist
 

 

Read for Errors

I can't exactly remember when was it that I first decided to become a dentist.  I just know that I have always wanted to be in the field of health care. My friends ask me why did I want to be a dentist, and I tell them that "There's nothing more beautiful than a healthy smile. Also, dentists have more regular hours than doctors. I can't imagine what did people do before the dentistry profession came along. People must have had terrible breath and missing teeth as they aged. Kissing was probably just for the young!

In fact, no one knows exactly who was the first dentist. In the old days, people used to go to the barber shop to get a tooth pulled. 

The only pain killer was a shot of whiskey. Can you imagine what was that like?  One minute the barber was cutting hair and the next minute he was pulling a tooth out.  It must not have been a very sterile place to do oral surgery.

Dentistry has progressed a lot. Now, patients receive much better care. I'm always glad to see my patients return with a big, white smile.  What's that?  Did you want to say something? I can't understand what are you're saying.

dentist (N) – doctor who cares for the teeth (the prevention of disease and treatment of tooth decay)

oral surgery – an operation on teeth, gums, or other part of the interior of the mouth

patient (N) – someone who is under medical care

profession (N) – a vocation, a particular kind of work, requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science

shot (N) – a small bar glass full of alcohol usually consumed quickly

sterile (Adj) – very clean, free from germs, ascetic

 

 

 

Edit for errors

  1. Edit the sentence(s) in the text box.
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check 21-30" button at the bottom, or click the "check" button as you go.

 

21.
I can't exactly remember when was it that I first decided to become a dentist.  I just know that I have always wanted to be in the field of healthcare.


22.
My friends ask me why did I want to be a dentist, and I tell them that "There's nothing more beautiful than a healthy smile."  Also, dentists have more regular hours than doctors.


23.
I can't imagine what did people do before the dentistry profession came along.  People must have had terrible breath and missing teeth as they aged.  Kissing was probably just for the young!


24.
In fact, no one knows exactly who was the first dentist. In the old days, people used to go to the barber shop to get a tooth pulled.  The only pain killer was a shot of whiskey.


25.
Can you imagine what was that like?  One minute the barber was cutting hair and the next minute he was pulling a tooth out.  It must not have been a very sterile place to perform oral surgery.


26.
I'm always glad to see my patients return with a big, white smile. What's that? Did you want to say something? I can't understand what are you're saying.