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POLITE QUESTIONS

Some questions are more polite than others. Here are the
three main question types in English. Each of these question
types can be used to form polite questions. Follow the
suggestions to use each form politely.

DIRECT QUESTION
Direct questions are either yes/no questions such as Are you
married? Or information questions such as Where do you
live?
Direct questions go right to the question and include no extra
language such as I wonder or can you tell me... Construction:

Direct questions place the helping verb before the subject of


the question:
(Question word) + Helping Verb + Subject + Verb + Objects?
Where do you work?
Are they coming to the party?
How long has she worked for this company?
What are you doing here?

Making Direct Questions Polite


Direct questions can seem impolite at times, especially when
you are asking a stranger. For example, if you come up to
someone and ask:
Does the tram stop here?
What time is it?
Can you move?
Are you sad?

It is certainly correct to ask questions in this manner, but it's


very common to make these types of questions more polite
by adding 'excuse me' or 'pardon me' to begin your question.

Excuse me, when does the bus leave?


Excuse me, what time is it?
Pardon me, which form do I need?
Pardon me, may I sit here?

Questions with 'can' are made more polite by using


'could':

Excuse me, could you help me pick this up?


Pardon me, could you help me?
Pardon me, could you give me a hand?
Could you explain this to me?
'Would' can also be used to make questions more
polite.

Would you lend me a hand with the wash?


Would you mind if I sat here?
Would you let me borrow your pencil?
Would you like something to eat?

Another way of making direct questions more polite is


to add 'please' at the end of the question:

Could you fill in this form, please?


Could you help me, please?
Can I have more soup, please?
Please, can I have more soup?

'May' is used as a formal means to ask for permission and is


very polite. It is usually used with 'I', and sometimes 'we'.

May I come in please?


May I use the telephone?
May we help you this evening?
May we make a suggestion?
INDIRECT QUESTION
Indirect questions begin with extra language to make the
question more polite. These phrases include I wonder, Can
you tell me, Do you think ...
Construction:
Indirect questions begin with an introductory phrase. Note
that because indirect questions do not invert the subject as in
direct questions. Use questions words for information
questions and 'if' or 'whether' for yes/no questions.
Introductory Phrase + Question Word / If / Whether + Subject
+ Helping Verb + Main Verb?

Can you tell me where he plays tennis?


I wonder if you know what time it is.
Do you think she will be able to come next week?
Excuse me, Do you know when the next bus leaves?

INDIRECT QUESTIONS: VERY POLITE


Using indirect question forms is an especially polite way of
asking polite questions.

The information requested is the same as in direct questions,


but are considered more formal. Notice that an indirect
question begins with a phrase (I wonder, Do you think, Would
you mind, etc.) the actual question is then placed in positive
sentence form:

Introductory phrase + question word (or if) + positive


sentence

I wonder if you could help me with this problem.


Do you know when the next train leaves?
Would you mind if I opened the window?

NOTE: If you are asking a 'yes - no' question use 'if' to


connect the introductory phrase with the actual question
statement. Otherwise, use a question word 'where, when,
why, or how' to connect the two phrases.

Do you know if she will come to the party?


I wonder if you can answer a few questions.
Can you tell me if he is married?

Question Tags
Question tags are used to check information that we think is
correct, or to ask for more information depending on the
intonation of the voice.
If the voice goes up at the end of the sentence, the person is
asking for more information. If the voice drops, someone is
confirming information which is known.

Construction:

Question tags use the opposite form of the helping verb from
the direct question to finish up the sentence in a 'tag'.
Subject +Helping verb + Objects + , + Opposite Helping Verb
+ Subject?
You live in New York, don't you?
She hasn't studied French, has she?
We're good friends, aren't we?
I've met you before, haven't I?

Direct and indirect questions are used to ask about


information you do not know. Question tags are generally
used to check information you think you know.
EXPRESSING ABILITIES
Can, could, be able to.
can and could are modal auxiliary verbs. be able to is NOT an auxiliary verb
(it uses the verb be as a main verb). We include be able to here for
convenience.

In this lesson we look at can, could and be able to, followed by a quiz to
check your understanding.

can
Can is an auxiliary verb, a modal auxiliary verb. We use can to:

talk about possibility and ability

make requests

ask for or give permission

Structure of can

The basic structure for can is:

subject + auxiliary verb + main verb


can

The main verb is always the bare infinitive (infinitive without to).

auxiliary verb
subject can main verb

+ I can play tennis.

- He cannot play tennis.

can't
auxiliary verb
subject can main verb

? Can you play tennis?

Notice that:

Can is invariable. There is only one form: can

The main verb is always the bare infinitive.


The main verb is always the bare infinitive (infinitive without to). We cannot
say: I can to play tennis.

Use of can

can for possibility and ability

We use can to talk about what is possible, what we are able or free to do:

She can drive a car.

John can speak Spanish.

I cannot hear you. (I can't hear you.)

Can you hear me?

Normally, we use can for the present. But it is possible to use can when we
make present decisions about future ability.

A. Can you help me with my homework? (present)

B. Sorry. I'm busy today. But I can help you tomorrow. (future)
can games for present ability

can for requests and orders

We often use can in a question to ask somebody to do something. This is not a


real question - we do not really want to know if the person is able to do
something, we want them to do it! The use of can in this way is informal
(mainly between friends and family):

Can you make a cup of coffee, please.

Can you put the TV on.


Can you come here a minute.

Can you be quiet!

can for permission

We sometimes use can to ask or give permission for something:

A. Can I smoke in this room?

B. You can't smoke here, but you can smoke in the garden.

(Note that we also use could, may, might for permission. The use of can for
permission is informal.)
can/could/may games for present permission

could
Could is an auxiliary verb, a modal auxiliary verb. We use could to:

talk about past possibility or ability

make requests

Structure of could

subject + auxiliary verb + main verb


could

The main verb is always the bare infinitive (infinitive without to).

auxiliary verb
subject could main verb

+ My could swim.
grandmother

- She could not walk.

couldn't

? Could your grandmother swim?


Notice that:

Could is invariable. There is only one form: could

The main verb is always the bare infinitive.


The main verb is always the bare infinitive (infinitive without to). We cannot
say: I could to play tennis.

Use of could

could for past possibility or ability

We use could to talk about what was possible in the past, what we were able or
free to do:

I could swim when I was 5 years old.

My grandmother could speak seven languages.

When we arrived home, we could not open the door. (...couldn't open
the door.)

Could you understand what he was saying?

We use I (positive) and couldn't (negative) for general ability in the past. But
when we talk about one special occasion in the past, we use be able
to (positive) and couldn't (negative). Look at these examples:

past

general specific occasion

+ My grandmother could speak A man fell into the river yesterday.


Spanish. The police were able to save him.

- My grandmother couldn'tspeak A man fell into the river yesterday.


Spanish. The police couldn't save him.
could games for past ability

could for requests

We often use could in a question to ask somebody to do something. The use


of could in this way is fairly polite (formal):
Could you tell me where the bank is, please?

Could you send me a catalogue, please?

be able to
Although we look at be able to here, it is not a modal verb. It is simply the
verb be plus an adjective (able) followed by the infinitive. We look at be able
to here because we sometimes use it instead of can and could.

We use be able to:

to talk about ability

Structure of be able to

The basic structure for be able to is:

subjec + be + able + to-infinitive


t

main
verb adjective
subject be able to-infinitive

+ I am able to drive.

- She is not able to drive.

isn't

? Are you able to drive?

Notice that be able to is possible in all tenses, for example:

I was able to drive...

I will be able to drive...

I have been able to drive...

Notice too that be able to has an infinitive form:


I would like to be able to speak Chinese.

Use of be able to
Be able to is NOT a modal auxiliary verb. We include it here for convenience,
because it is often used like "can" and "could", which are modal auxiliary verbs.

be able to for ability

We use be able to to express ability. "Able" is an adjective meaning: having the


power, skill or means to do something. If we say "I am able to swim", it is like
saying "I can swim". We sometimes use be able to instead of "can" or "could"
for ability. Be able to is possible in all tenses - but "can" is possible only in the
present and "could" is possible only in the past for ability. In addition, "can" and
"could" have no infinitive form. So we use be able to when we want to use
other tenses or the infinitive. Look at these examples:

I have been able to swim since I was five. (present perfect)

You will be able to speak perfect English very soon. (future simple)

I would like to be able to fly an airplane. (infinitive

POLITE QUESTIONS QUIZ


First, identify which type of question is asked (i.e. direct,
indirect, or question tag). Next, provide a missing word to fill
in the gap to complete the question.

Can you tell me ______ you live?


They won't attend this class, _____ they?
I wonder ______ you like chocolate or not.
______ me, what time does the train leave?
Excuse me, _____ you help me with my homework?
Do you know how long Mark _____ been working for that
company?
_____ I make a suggestion?
Excuse me, do you know _____ the next show begins?
Answers

where
will
if / whether
Excuse / Pardon
could / would
has
May
when / what time