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!


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!

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