Indirect Questions – Being Polite

by Rob Lane

Question formation is sometimes difficult for students and some questions require particular structures. In this article I will focus on indirect questions which begin with phrases such as could you tell me.

We will look at a three part structure. A similar structure is also used for indirect statements and reported questions.

This type of question is in the sections on Indirect Questions and Inversion in standard grammar and textbooks. There is a lot of incorrect and confusing information about this online, so please be careful.

Why do we use this question form?

  • To be polite – Could you tell me where the post office is?

  • When we ask about sensitive information – Could you tell me what your age is?

We may wish to be polite because we are speaking to a stranger to ask for directions in the street, speaking to a client, asking for someone’s personal or sensitive information (weight or age), or we just want to be polite.

How do we form indirect questions?

  1. Polite Phrase

  2. Wh- question word OR if/whether

  3. A positive phrase

Examples of polite phrases:

Could you tell me…

Would you mind telling me….

Do you mind if I ask…

Wh- question words include; what, where, when, etc

These are used for open questions. Open questions have more than two possible answers.

If or whether are used for closed questions.

Closed questions are yes or no questions.

Positive phrases include; the time is, the station is, he did, she said etc

Changing Direct (normal) questions into Indirect (polite) questions

Direct Question: What time is it?

Indirect Question:1. Could you tell me… 2. what 3. time it is?

Direct: What is your age?

Indirect:Could you tell me what your age is?

Direct: Where is Trinity College?

Indirect: Could you tell me where Trinity College is?

Direct: Are you married?

Indirect: Would you mind telling me if you are married?

Notice in these examples that the final part of the indirect question is not in interrogative form. This is where students make most mistakes. Example:

Could you tell me what is the time? (incorrect)

Could you tell me what time it is? (correct)


Write down five open and five closed direct questions.

Use the three part formula to change them into indirect questions

When you finish, check that the final part is not in interrogative structure.

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