The Three Types of Questions in English

An overview of the three types of questions for ESL students

Woman with a question mark above her head
Flashpop / Getty Images

There are three types of questions in English: direct, indirect, and question tags. Direct and indirect questions are used to ask for information you do not know, while question tags are generally used to clarify information you think you know.

Each type can be used to ask polite questions, but certain indirect forms are more polite and formal. Be careful to not use the imperative form to ask for things. In other words, don't say "Give me that", but ask politely as shown in the following examples.

 To learn more about how to use each form correctly, check out the quick overview below.

Asking Direct Questions

Direct questions are either yes/no questions such as "Are you married?" or information questions such as "Where do you live?" Direct questions ask for the information immediately without including extra language such as "I wonder" or "Can you tell me"...

Construction

Direct questions place the helping verb before the subject of the question: 

(Question word) + Helping Verb + Subject + Verb + Objects?

  • Where do you work?
  • Are they coming to the party?
  • How long has she worked for this company?
  • What are you doing here?

Making Direct Questions More Polite

Direct questions can seem abrupt and impolite at times, especially when you are asking a stranger. For example, if you come up to someone and ask:

  • Does the tram stop here?
  • What time is it?
  • Can you move?
  • Are you sad?

It is certainly correct to ask questions in this manner, but it's very common to make these types of questions more polite by adding 'excuse me' or 'pardon me' to begin your question.

  • Excuse me, when does the bus leave?
  • Excuse me, what time is it?
  • Pardon me, which form do I need?
  • Pardon me, may I sit here?

It's also possible to use 'can' in more informal situations. In the past, "can" was not used when asking for something, but only to refer to ability. In the United Kingdom, Cambridge University publishes English teaching materials with the phrase "Can you lend me," "Can I have," etc. In the United States, this form is still considered to be incorrect for written English in particular, and "May I have" is preferred.  Questions with 'can' are made more polite by using 'could':

  • Excuse me, could you help me pick this up?
  • Pardon me, could you help me?
  • Pardon me, could you give me a hand?
  • Could you explain this to me?

'Would' can also be used to make questions more polite.

  • Would you lend me a hand with the wash?
  • Would you mind if I sat here?
  • Would you let me borrow your pencil?
  • Would you like something to eat?

Another way of making direct questions more polite is to add 'please' at the end of the question:

  • Could you fill in this form, please?
  • Could you help me, please?
  • Can I have more soup, please?

Please should not appear at the beginning of the question: 

  • Please, can I have more soup?

'May' is used as a formal means to ask for permission and is very polite. It is usually used with 'I', and sometimes 'we'.

  • May I come in, please?
  • May I use the telephone?
  • May we help you this evening?
  • May we make a suggestion?

Asking Indirect Questions to Be Especially Polite

Using indirect question forms is an especially polite way of asking polite questions. The information requested is the same as indirect questions, but are considered more formal. Notice that an indirect question begins with a phrase (I wonder, Do you think, Would you mind, etc.) the actual question is then placed in positive sentence form. These phrases include "I wonder", "Can you tell me", "Do you think"...

Construction

Indirect questions begin with an introductory phrase. Note that because indirect questions do not invert the subject as indirect questions. Use questions words for information questions and 'if' or 'whether' for yes/no questions.

Introductory Phrase + Question Word / If / Whether + Subject + Helping Verb + Main Verb?

  • Can you tell me where he plays tennis?
  • I wonder if you know what time it is.
  • Do you think she will be able to come next week?
  • Excuse me, Do you know when the next bus leaves?

Introductory phrase + question word (or if) + positive sentence

  • I wonder if you could help me with this problem.
  • Do you know when the next train leaves?
  • Would you mind if I opened the window?

NOTE: If you are asking a 'yes-no' question use 'if' to connect the introductory phrase with the actual question statement. Otherwise, use a question word 'where, when, why, or how' to connect the two phrases.

  • Do you know if she will come to the party?
  • I wonder if you can answer a few questions.
  • Can you tell me if he is married?

Question Tags Are Used for Clarification

Question tags are used to check information that we think is correct or to ask for more information depending on the intonation of the voice. If the voice goes up at the end of the sentence, the person is asking for more information. If the voice drops, someone is confirming information which is known.

Construction

Question tags use the opposite form of the helping verb from the direct question to finish up the sentence with a 'tag'. 

Subject +Helping verb + Objects + , +  Opposite Helping Verb + Subject?

  • You live in New York, don't you?
  • She hasn't studied French, has she?
  • We're good friends, aren't we?
  • I've met you before, haven't I?

Polite Questions Quiz

First, identify which type of question is asked (i.e. direct, indirect, or question tag). Next, provide a missing word to fill in the gap to complete the question.

  1. Can you tell me ______ you live?
  2. They won't attend this class, _____ they?
  3. I wonder ______ you like chocolate or not.
  4. ______ me, what time does the train leave?
  5. Excuse me, _____ you help me with my homework?
  6. Do you know how long Mark _____ been working for that company?
  7. _____ I make a suggestion?
  8. Excuse me, do you know _____ the next show begins?

Answers

  1. where
  2. will
  3. if / whether
  4. Excuse / Pardon
  5. could / would
  6. has
  7. May
  8. when / what time