Student Stumper 6: The Wh- Infinitive in Indirect Speech

QUESTION:  If the reported statement is he asked me when to come, what was the original statement? “When to come?” Can I ask that?


No. When to come? is not a grammatically correct question. The original statement was probably when should I come? It could also have been what time do you want me to come?

It’s not always easy to figure out the exact words the speaker used when you hear his or her words secondhand. At some point when teaching reported speech, we need to explain that there’s a degree of interpretation. The person reporting must accurately convey the meaning, but doesn’t necessarily have to use the same structures.

Modals in questions can often be reported using wh- infinitives. One source explains that the wh- infinitive (also called the infinitive wh- clause) is used with an obligational sense, but after some thought, I decided to expand on that:

  • [obligation] “Where should I go?” = He asked where to go. – OR – He asked where he should go.
  • [possibility] “How can I call without a cell phone?” = He asked how to call without a cell phone. – OR – He asked how he could call without a cell phone.

In doing research, I found confirmation that among the wh- words why isn’t used in wh- infinitives, but how is. For example, we can say how to do it, but we cannot say why to do it. This can be confusing to students if we teach use the term wh- infinitive since why has the wh- spelling but how doesn’t.

…This last point could actually be the topic of another posting. Why is it that we can say how to do it, but we cannot say why to do it? We can only ask why do it? So if we can ask why do it? to mean why should I do it? why can’t we say when do it? to mean when should I do it? Ah, the beauty of the English language.




Greenbaum, Sidney and Randolph Quirk. A Student’s Grammar of the English Language. Longman: 1990.


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