Direct Question in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The Cat in the Hat

 Dr. Seuss

A sentence that asks a question and ends with a question mark, such as "Who are you?" and "Why are you here?" Contrast with indirect question.

"A direct question," says Thomas S. Kane, "is always marked by one or some combination of three signals: a rising intonation of the voice, an auxiliary verb inverted to a position before the subject, or an interrogative pronoun or adverb (who, what, why, when, how, and so on)" (The New Oxford Guide to Writing, 1988).

Examples and Observations

  • "Then our mother came in
    And she said to us two,
    'Did you have any fun?
    Tell me. What did you do?'"
    (Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat. Random House, 1957)
  • "'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast."
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web. Harper, 1952)
  • "What's in the box?"
    (Brad Pitt as Detective David Mills in Seven, 1995)
  • "Who's on first?"
    (Lou Costello addressing Bud Abbot in a famous comedy routine)
  • "Open your eyes, and look within.
    Are you satisfied with the life you're living?"
    (Bob Marley, "Exodus." Exodus, 1977)
  • "Didn't Frankenstein get married?"
    "Did he?" said Eggy. "I don't know. I never met him. Harrow man, I expect."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Laughing Gas, 1936)
  • "When I was crossing the border into Canada, they asked if I had any firearms with me. I said, 'Well, what do you need?'"
    (Comedian Steven Wright)
  • "'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
    (Lewis Carroll,Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)
  • "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"
    (Edward G. Robinson as Caesar Enrico Bandello in Little Caesar, 1931)
  • "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"
    (Billie Burke as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, addressing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, 1939)
  • "'What you doing sitting here by yourself, Marguerite?' She didn't accuse, she asked for information. I said that I was watching the sky."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)

Three Main Types of Direct Questions

Questions are sentences which seek information. They fall into three main types, depending on the kind of reply they expect, and on how they are constructed. Sentences formed in these ways are said to have an interrogative structure.​

A questioning tone of voice can turn a statement into a yes-no question. Such questions have the structure of a declarative sentence. The tone of voice has become particularly common, especially among young people, in recent decades.

"Mary's outside?
You've spoken to her?"

(David Crystal, Rediscover Grammar. Pearson, 2003)

  1. Yes-no questions allow an affirmative or negative reply, often just yes or no. The subject follows a verb (the 'auxiliary'). "Will Michael resign?
    Are they ready?"
  2. Wh- questions allow a reply from a wide range of possibilities. They begin with a question word, such as what, why, where, or how. "Where are you going?
    Why didn't he answer?"
  3. Alternative questions require a reply which relates to the options given in the sentence. They always contain the connecting word or. "Will you travel by train or by boat?"

The Lighter Side of Direct Questions

"I think of the story of a woman who was making a cross-country trip on a train. Something went wrong with the car's heating system and before long the passenger was suffering desperately from extreme cold in her upper berth. Finally, maddened with discomfort, she leaned over and spoke to the male passenger who was occupying the lower berth.

"'Excuse me,' she said, 'but are you as cold as I am?'

"'I'm colder,' he said, 'something's wrong with this damn train.'

"'Well,' the woman said, 'would you mind getting me an extra blanket?'

"Suddenly the man got an odd look in his eye and said, 'You know, since we're both miserably cold, let me ask you a direct question. Would you like to pretend that we're married?'

"'Well, actually,' the woman said, 'yes, I would.'

"'Good,' the fellow said, 'then get up and get it yourself.'"
(Steve Allen, Steve Allen's Private Joke File. Three Rivers Press, 2000)

Also Known As: interrogative sentence

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Direct Question in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Direct Question in Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Direct Question in Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).