How to Sound More Polite: Phrases to Improve Your Communication

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When interacting with people, especially strangers or acquaintances, asking direct questions can often seem rude or make the other person feel uncomfortable.

To sound more polite, it’s beneficial to use indirect questions. This small adjustment can significantly improve your communication skills.

In this episode of the podcast, I dive into the art of sounding more polite by mastering the use of indirect questions.

You will learn:

  • The simple structure of direct versus indirect questions to know whether you sound polite or not
  • How to easily change direct questions into indirect questions for professional and courteous conversations
  • Important tips to remember when using indirect questions so that you are not only polite, but grammatically correct, too!
 
Watch the episode here.

You can also listen to this episode on SpotifyApple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.

The Structure of Direct and Indirect Questions

Direct and indirect questions typically follow a structure. Let’s break this down:

Direct Question:

    • Structure: Question word + verb + subject + ?
    • Example: “Where is the restroom?”

 

Indirect Question:

    • Structure: Introductory phrase + question word + subject + verb + rest of the sentence + ?
    • Example: “Can you tell me where the restroom is?”
 
Examples of Introductory Phrases

Here are some common introductory phrases you can use:

  • “Could you show me…?”
  • “Would you happen to know…?”
  • “Do you know…?”
  • “Have you any idea…?”
  • “Do you have any idea when…?”
  • “Could you tell me…?”
  • “Would you mind telling me…?”
  • “May I know…?”
  • “May I ask…?”

 

Question Words

The question words that can be used in indirect questions include:

  • who
  • what
  • where
  • when
  • why
  • how

Subject + Verb

As mentioned above, an indirect question often begins with an introductory phrase, followed by a question word. This is then followed by subject + verb, which is the word order of a statement.

Indirect Question:

  • Structure: Introductory phrase + question word + subject + verb + rest of the sentence + ?
  • Example: “Do you have any idea when the project deadline is?”

     

Remember that in an indirect question, the word order after the question word looks like a statement:

  • Statement: The project deadline is next Friday.”
  • Indirect Question: “Do you have any idea when the project deadline is?”
  • Incorrect:  “Do you have any idea when is the project deadline?”

Using “If” and “Whether” in Indirect Questions

Indirect questions may include “if” or “whether” instead of question words. These words introduce the condition and come after an introductory phrase. You may use this structure to ask “yes/no” questions.

For example:

  • Direct Question: “Is the post office closed for lunch?”
  • Indirect Question: “Do you know if the post office is closed for lunch?”

 

Other examples using “if” or “whether”:

  • Direct Question: “Is this item available in other colours?”
  • Indirect Question with “if”: “Do you have any idea if this item is available in other colours?”

 

  • Direct Question: “Has the schedule for the training sessions been confirmed?”
  • Indirect Question with “whether”: “May I ask whether the schedule for the training sessions has been confirmed?”

 

Common introductory phrases to use with “if” or “whether”:

  • “Do you have any idea if…”
  • “Do you know if…”
  • “I was wondering if…”
  • “Do you happen to know if…”
  • I’m curious to know if…”
  • “May I ask whether…”

Tips for Formulating Polite Indirect Questions

Crafting indirect questions involves a few key adjustments to ensure they sound polite and respectful.

Here are some essential tips to keep in mind:

  1. Remove the Auxiliary Verb (does/do/did): In indirect questions, the auxiliary verbs “does” or “do” are usually not needed. For example, instead of saying “Could you tell me how long does the warranty last?” you should say “Could you tell me how long the warranty lasts?”.

  2. Ensure Subject and Verb Agreement: Make sure the subject and verb in your indirect question agree in number. For instance, “Could you tell me how long the warranty lasts?” is correct because “warranty” (singular) matches “lasts” (singular).

  3. Check Whether a Question Mark is Needed: When using introductory phrases like “I was wondering” or “I’m curious to know”, it’s more natural not to end the sentence with a question mark. For example, “I was wondering how long the warranty lasts” is polite and doesn’t require a question mark at the end.

Why Politeness Matters

Mastering the art of using indirect questions not only enhances your politeness but also makes your interactions more comfortable and respectful. By practising these simple structures, you can improve your communication skills significantly.

Make sure to watch the episode where I provide more details and examples of direct versus indirect questions! 


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We’re Azimah, Amnah and Aisya from Malaysia. We created My English Matters as an online platform to help people improve their English.

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