Student Stumper 27: Embedded Questions

Click here if you’d like to listen to my discussion of Student Stumper 27.

QUESTION: What’s an embedded question and how do we use it?

ANSWER: These are the questions I’m trying to answer for my YouTube audience. A viewer made this inquiry a while ago, and I promised to address this topic in a future video. Well, the future is here. I’ve already posted Part 1, and I’ve committed to a basic definition and two standard uses.

First off, I think we’d all agree to define an embedded question as a dependent noun clause. It has other names, such as a wh- clause and a noun clause with a question word. I chose to use “embedded question” because it explains the positioning within a statement. Embedded questions are placed inside a larger question or a statement: Do you know what time it is? / I don’t understand why he did that.

Although I see overlap with indirect or reported questions, I don’t see them as being one and the same. Here’s an example of overlap: [direct speech] “Why did he do that?” / [indirect question/ embedded question] I wondered why he did that. However, embedded questions go beyond reporting conversations. Consider these statements as part of my argument: I think you’re forgetting why he came here in the first place. / What he said yesterday came as a surprise to everyone.

As a noun clause, an embedded question has a subject and a verb, and because it’s not a real question we use sentence word order. Compare: [real question] What time is it? / [embedded question] Do you know what time it is?

All right. Are we in agreement so far? Then let’s get into the nitty-gritty: the uses of embedded questions. As noun clauses, I’d argue we use embedded questions much as we do single-word nouns. In Part 1 of my YouTube lesson, I limited my presentation to subjects and direct objects, emphasizing that it’s most common for embedded questions to follow verbs, especially when we’re politely requesting information:  Could you explain why plants need sunlight?

Nouns clauses have other uses, don’t they? Take a look and see if you agree with my examples and conclusions.

1)      Objects of prepositions: It all depends on how much the project will cost and when you plan to launch it.

2)      Object complement (what some books refer to as object predicative and what a colleague of mine refers to as a double object): Can you ask her what time she plans to arrive?

3)      Subject complement (what some books refer to as subject predicative): The main problem is how we’re going to pay for all this.

4)      Complement in an adjective phrase: Be careful what you say and how you say it.

5)      Complement in a noun phrase: The question why I am here is not the issue. / We had no idea how worried you were

 

My biggest doubts still lie in the use of an embedded question as complement in a noun phrase. Biber et al. recognize this function of wh- clauses in Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (194, 3.11.1) and continue with a discussion on head nouns that take wh- interrogative clauses (656, 8.14.4). While I appreciate the detailed examination in that book, I worry about information overload. How can we teach advanced students about other uses of embedded questions without thoroughly confusing them?

I want to be thorough in my explanation for students, but I also wish to simplify as much as possible.  I may decide to state there are two other uses of embedded questions besides subjects and direct objects; we can use embedded questions as indirect objects and complements. Examples can demonstrate different kinds of complements.

Any thoughts? I’d appreciate feedback before I publish Part 2 of my YouTube lesson. Thank you!

Sources:

Azar, Betty S. and Hagen, Stacy A. Understanding and Using English Grammar. Pearson Longman, 2009.

Biber, D. et al. Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Longman, 2002.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Annnie Escalante says:

    nice explanation. I’d love to see more examples

    1. Later this month, I may come up with another post on embedded questions. There was a question from a student recently that prompted me to think more about these noun clauses and what kind of practice we might offer learners. More to come!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s