Indirect questions in German

Spoken GermanDirect and indirect questions

Indirect questions are questions that are included within the structure of another sentence. They usually come after certain introductory phrases, such as the following.
Ich weiß nicht, …
Er fragt, …
Ich verstehe nicht, …
Sie möchte wissen, …
Ich sage dir nicht, …
Können Sie mir sagen, …?

Sentence Structure

The sentence structure of indirect questions differs from that of normal questions – in indirect questions, the finite verb is placed at the end of the sentence (question-word + subject + object + verb).
Wann hat er Zeit? – Ich weiß nicht, wann er Zeit hat.
Was hat sie gesagt? – Ich sage dir nicht, was sie gesagt hat.

Indirect Questions with ob

If there’s no question word, we use ob in the indirect question.
Kommt sie morgen? – Er fragt, ob sie morgen kommt.

Punctuation in Indirect Questions

In an indirect question, we normally use a full stop and not a question mark (see example above). The question mark is only used if the indirect question is an actual question.
Können Sie mir sagen, wie ich zum Bahnhof komme?
Indirect questions are formed in German with a complex clause formed by a main clause and a subordinate clause This is understood better with an example: A direct question would be:

Wann ist er geboren? When was he born?

The same question in an indirect form would be:

Wir wissen nicht, wann er geboren ist We don’t know when he was born

“wann er geboren ist” is the subordinate clause. Remember that subordinate clauses have very special rules: Verb at the end, with a comma separating the main clause.

Types of indirect questions

As we already had explained in the article interrogation in German, there are 2 types of interrogative clauses in German:
  • Yes or no questions (closed questions)
  • W-Fragen (opened questions)

Closed indirect questions

Closed indirect questions are formed with the conjunction ob:

Sie hat mich gefragt, ob er ledig ist She asked me if he’s single

Open Indirect questions

Open indirect questions can be formed with any interrogative particle:

Kannst du mir erklären, wo du gestern warst? Could you explain to me where you were yesterday?

Typical structures for indirect clauses

As an example, we’ll show you some structures commonly used in indirect clauses:

Er hat mich gefragt, ob/wann/… He asked me if/whether/when/…

Kannst du mir sagen, ob/wann/…? Can you tell me if/whether/when…?

Ich bin nicht sicher, ob/wann/… I’m not sure if/whether/when…


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