Embedded Question in Grammar

Chalk question marks above woman at blackboard
fotosipsak/Getty Images

In English grammar, an embedded question is a question that appears in a declarative statement or in another question.

The following phrases are commonly used to introduce embedded questions:
Could you tell me . . .
Do you know . . .
I wanted to know . . .
I wonder . . .
The question is . . .
Who knows . . .

Unlike conventional interrogative structures, in which word order is reversed, the subject usually comes before the verb in an embedded question. Also, the auxiliary verb do is not used in embedded questions.

Commentary on Embedded Questions

"An embedded question is a question inside a statement. Here are some examples:

- I was wondering if it's going to rain tomorrow. (The embedded question is: Is it going to rain tomorrow?)
- I suppose you don't know if they are coming. (The embedded question is: Do you know if they are coming?)

You can use an embedded question when you do not want to be too direct, such as when you are speaking to someone senior in the company, and the use of a direct question seems impolite or blunt."

(Elisabeth Pilbeam et al., English First Additional Language: Level 3. Pearson Education South Africa, 2008)

Examples of Embedded Questions

  • "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" (Alice in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll)
  • "The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be."
    (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
  • "I set up the checkerboard and explained how the pieces are placed and how they move." (Herbert Kohl, The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching. The New Press, 2013)
  • "I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away." (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

Stylistic Conventions

"Kate [a copy editor] moves on to the second sentence:

The question is, how many re-readings are reasonable?

Uncertain about how to treat a question ('how many re-readings are reasonable?') embedded in a sentence, she picks up [The Chicago Manual of Style] . . . [and] decides to apply the following conventions:

Since the author has followed all these conventions, Kate changes nothing."

  1. The embedded question should be preceded by a comma.
  2. The first word of an embedded question is capitalized only when the question is long or has internal punctuation. A short informal embedded question begins with a lowercase letter.
  3. The question should not be in quotation marks because it is not a piece of dialogue.
  4. The question should end with a question mark because it is a direct question.

(Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor's Handbook. University of California Press, 2006)

Embedded Questions in AAVE

"In AAVE [African-American Vernacular English], when questions are embedded in sentences themselves, the order of the subject (boldfaced) and the auxiliary (italicized) may be inverted unless the embedded question begins with if:

They asked could she go to the show.
I asked Alvin whether did he know how to play basketball.
*I asked Alvin if did he know how to play basketball.

(Irene L. Clark, Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003)