Embedded Questions

An embedded question is a question that is inside another question or statement. This grammar point is sometimes explained on its own or in a lesson on noun clauses or reported speech (more on this below).


To help students remember what an embedded question is, think of “embed” as “in bed.” When you’re in bed, you’re tucked in between the sheets. An embedded question is simply a question tucked inside another one!

Embedded questions can cause confusion for English language learners because they follow a normal Subject-Verb-Object pattern instead of a typical inverted question pattern. Let’s take a closer look!

Two Types

1. Embedded Questions within Questions

Here are some examples of an embedded question within another question. For patterns and uses, see the notes below the charts.


2. Embedded Questions within Statements

Here are some examples of an embedded question within an affirmative or negative sentence. Note that we do not use a question mark for these statements even though they contain a question.



1. Sentence Pattern

A normal English sentence follows this pattern: Subject + Verb (+ Object) or SVO.

  • She (S) sang (V).
  • The girl (S) walked (V) her dog (O).

2. Question Pattern

A normal question has an inversion of the sentence pattern, and looks like this: (Question Word) + Auxiliary Verb + Subject + Main Verb (+ Object) or VSVO. For the Be verb, it looks like this: VSO.

  • What (Question Word) did (Aux V) he (S) say (V)?
  • Do (Aux V) you (S) like (V) pizza (O)?
  • Is (Be) he (S) sleepy?

3. Embedded Question Pattern

In an embedded question, the question inside the statement or other question follows a sentence pattern instead of a question pattern: SVO. The introductory phrases follow the normal sentence (SV) or question (VS) patterns.

  • I (S) don’t know (V) [what (question word) I (S) should do (V)].
  • Do (Aux V) you (S) think (V) [we (S) need (V) more time (O)]?


When and why do we use embedded questions in English?

1. To be more polite

  • What time is it? (normal question)
  • Could you (please) tell me what time it is? (embedded question = more polite)

2. To give more information

  • I wonder if she’ll call me. (expresses curiosity)
  • I don’t know where my bag is. (expresses lack of knowledge)
  • I want to know when this meeting will start. (expresses desire for knowledge)

3. To change direct speech to reported (indirect) speech

  • “What do you want to know?” (direct speech)
  • He asked me what I wanted to know. (reported speech)


Note 1

Embedded questions are a type of noun clause. A noun clause is a complete sentence (SVO) that serves as a subject or object of another sentence.

  • What do you mean? (SV)
  • I don’t know (SV) [what you meant (SV)].
    (What you meant serves as the object of the sentence I don’t know.)

Note 2

Don’t use contractions at the end of an embedded clause. (Tell students this follows the same rule as short answers in English—we can say Yes, he is but we can never say Yes, he’s.)

  • Do you know what time it is?
  • Do you know what time it’s?

Note 3

Who knows is used for questions, but it can also be used for statements. English speakers often use this phrase as a statement when they are surprised or frustrated.

  • Who knows the answer to #2?
  • Who knows what she meant by that.
  • Who knows when this week will start getting better!

Note 4

For more practice with tense changes in indirect (reported) speech, try our Grammar Practice Worksheets lesson: Direct and Reported Speech. For more embedded question charts, see our Grammar and Usage Resource: Embedded Questions.

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Leave a Comment ↓

  1. masoudkarbassi@yahoo.com'

    Masoud says:

    Dec 01, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Could you tell me what the embedded question of ” why didn’t you come” is?


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Dec 11, 2018 at 5:31 pm

      Hi Masoud, here are some examples on how to embed “why didn’t you come” into a question or statement:
      – Can you tell me why you didn’t come?
      – Could you tell me why you didn’t come?
      – Would you mind telling me why you didn’t come?
      – Does he know why you didn’t come?
      – I’m wondering why you didn’t come.
      – I don’t know why you didn’t come.


  2. gopalbtr123@gmail.com'

    Gopal Bhattarai says:

    Nov 20, 2018 at 10:14 am

    Dear Tanya,
    What is the embedded question of ‘Was he alone? Did you notice…?
    Somebody taught me ‘Did you notice if he was alone? the other teacher taught me ‘Did you notice if he had been alone?
    I have learnt that there should not be tense change in the embedded questions. Is it right?
    Yours sincerely,


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Nov 20, 2018 at 6:01 pm

      Hi Gopal,

      The correct answer is: “Did you notice if he was alone?”

      This is because the tense doesn’t usually change with embedded questions. So “he was alone” + “did you notice that?” = “Did you notice if he was alone?” More importantly, you’re talking about two past actions that both happened at the SAME time (e.g., yesterday).

      The reason why your other teacher may have been confused is because this is so similar to reported speech. With reported speech, the tense usually does change. So “he was alone” + “she asked me” = “She asked if he had been alone.” With reported speech, you’re talking about two past actions that happened at DIFFERENT times. He was alone yesterday, and she asked me about it an hour ago today, for example. However, with the Be verb and reported speech, we can also choose not to use the more formal past perfect (had been) and just use the simple past (was). In other words, “She asked if he was alone” and “She asked if he had been alone” are both correct, and you’re actually more likely to hear the casual simple past form (was). Hope that helps!


  3. bianvictoria@gmail.com'

    Vicky says:

    Sep 20, 2018 at 5:22 pm

    Hi Tanya,
    In the direct question “What’s in the casserole?”, when changed to embedded, the order doesn’t change and it’s “Can you tell me what’s in the casserole?”
    Why doesn’t the order become inverted like most embedded questions?



    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Sep 20, 2018 at 5:38 pm

      Hi Vicky,

      Good question! It all depends on if the Wh- word is the subject or object of a sentence. If it’s an object (as is usually the case), there is inversion, but if it’s a subject, inversion is not required.

      For example:
      – What [direct object] is [aux V] that man [subject] carrying [main V]?
      – That man [subject] is [aux V] carrying [main V] a vase [direct object].
      – Can you tell me what that man is carrying? (= Inversion is required in an embedded question because “what” is the object of the clause.)

      – What [subject] is [main verb] in the casserole [indirect object]?
      – Beef and noodles [subject] are [main V] in the casserole [indirect object].
      – Can you tell me what’s in the casserole? (= No inversion is required in an embedded question because “what” is the subject of the clause.)


  4. Maryam_fekri@hotmail.com'

    Maryam says:

    Jun 29, 2018 at 7:59 am

    Dear Tenya Trusler,

    I’ve got a q. I want to know which one of the questions below is correct and why?

    1- Who do you think is he?
    2- Who do you think he is?

    Thanks for time allocation.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jul 02, 2018 at 1:27 pm

      Hi Maryam,

      Great question! #2 is correct (Who do you think he is?) and #1 is not possible. In English, the first clause of a question contains the subject-verb inversion while the second clause follows a normal sentence pattern (SV). Your question is tricky because of the multiple words that appear to be subjects. For your question, you can break it down like this:

      Who (O of second clause) do (Aux V of first clause) you (S of first clause) think (V of first clause) / he (S of second clause) is (V of second clause) ?

      Here’s another way to think of the underlying sentences used in your question:
      He is X [X = who].
      You think Y [Y = he is X].

      Hope that helps!


  5. j.guiza@losportales.edu.co'

    Jamie Lee says:

    Feb 02, 2018 at 1:20 pm

    What is the difference between indirect and embedded questions?


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Feb 02, 2018 at 3:00 pm

      Hi Jamie,

      Indirect speech is just one of the uses of embedded questions (see Uses above), and vice versa. So, for example, when you say She asked me if I could come over on Monday it is BOTH an embedded question (from Can you come over on Monday?) and indirect speech (from She asked).

      Just keep in mind that there are instances where something is indirect speech but NOT an embedded question (e.g., They told me to check in at noon / from Check in at noon and They told me), and instances where something is an embedded question but NOT indirect speech (e.g., I wonder if the class will start on time / from Will the class start on time? and I wonder). Hope that helps!


  6. gmsazid@gmail.com'

    Mahmud Sazid says:

    Nov 04, 2017 at 12:45 am

    Hi Tania,
    I have a question.

    Normal sentence –He doesn’t read newspaper daily.
    How to convert it into embedded ques??


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Nov 08, 2017 at 1:11 pm

      Hi Mahmud,

      The original sentence isn’t a question, but you can still embed it. But in this case, we would call the second clause a “noun clause” rather than an embedded question. For example:
      – I know (that) he doesn’t read the newspaper daily.
      – I think (that) he doesn’t read the newspaper daily.

      To make it into question form, you will need to lose the negative part of the sentence (because asking a question implies that you don’t know the answer):
      – Do you know if he reads the newspaper daily?
      – She asked if he reads the newspaper daily.

      Hope that helps!



    MUHAMMAD says:

    Nov 02, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    HELLO Tanya,
    I have been looking for this clarification for a while and you have explained the topic very nicely.
    I have a question:
    Do you know when the class will start
    do you know when will the class start
    1st is an example of embedded question but would it be wrong to use the second sentence for the same purpose??


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Nov 02, 2017 at 6:20 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Muhammad! To answer your question:

      “Do you know when the class will start?” is correct.
      “Do you know when will the class start?” is incorrect.


  8. rockalan2@hotmail.com'

    Allan says:

    Jul 05, 2017 at 9:33 am

    What about this question:
    How many people were there?
    Do I invert the order of “were” and “there”?


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jul 05, 2017 at 11:42 am

      Hi Allan,
      If you embedded this question within another, you could invert or not depending on the meaning. For example, in the embedded question with inversion “Do you know how many people there were?” (with “there” acting as an empty subject), you would answer “There were 12 people.” (In that case, the location would be understood in the context.) But without inversion, “Do you know how many people were there?” (with “there” meaning “location”), you would answer “There were 12 people there” as in “There were 12 people at the party.” And yes, you could even say “Do you know how many people there were there?” though it’s not common because it sounds repetitive.


      • allanbenavides4@gmail.com'

        Allan Benavides says:

        Jul 06, 2017 at 8:39 pm

        I got it! Thanks a lot, Tanya.


  9. warink.rsmu@gmail.com'

    WK says:

    Dec 01, 2016 at 3:27 am

    Dear Tanya,

    Do they have the standard English score requirement for deaf who graduated from college or high school? Where should I find these information?

    Sincerely yours,


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Dec 01, 2016 at 3:20 pm

      I’m sorry, but I don’t have any information on that. I am only familiar with TOEIC, TOEFL, and IELTS score requirements, and I know that they differ depending on the university or company. Like those tests, it might depend on where you’re applying to. Please let me know if you find out any information about this. :)


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