Tag Archives: syntax

Indirect or reported questions

A student the other day made a series of mistakes in his writing, things like:

  • My father asked me what sport will I like…
  • I wanted to know will you go out with me…

What is happening here is that the grammar of direct questions, the actual words someone would have said, is being mixed in with a report structure.

The father in the first example would have said “What sport will/do you like?” The second example would have been “Will you go out with me?”

But when you report a question, things change. First, word order changes. Second, question words often disappear. Third, word order changes. Fourth, tense changes to suit the time frame of the report.

So our examples would become:

  • My father asked me what sport I would like…
  • I wanted to know if you would go out with me…

Reported questions are more common in rather formal registers, but they do quite frequently occur in narrative, partly for variety, and partly for focussing the narrative viewpoint in a certain way. 

Many of the rules are just the same as in Indirect or Reported Speech.


Indirect questions (British Council)

Questions in reported speech

Reported questions

Quiz on Indirect Questions


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Good question: are fractions and decimals singular or plural?

Over on Old Teachers Never Die… a couple of weeks ago Antony Shen asked:

Speaking of “subject-verb agreement”. I hope you don’t mind answering me a simple question (not directly related). With countable nouns, in scientific styled sentences, do you say “0.1 apple” or “0.1 apples“? (as in zero point two rather than one fifth of an …) Also, in the case of negative numbers, do you say “-1 apple” or “-1 apples“? Or shall I ask, what is the definition of “plural”? “greater than one” OR “anything other than one”?

I replied:

To deal with your second question first: countable nouns form plurals; mass/uncountable nouns don’t. This gets a little more complicated because some nouns may be either countable or mass/uncountable, depending on how they are being used. “Wheat” for example may be both: ten kilos of wheat is uncountable; several types of wheat is also uncountable; there are several wheats used in this mix is countable.

OK, with countable nouns: I would say 0.1 apples for grammatical reasons, though I agree it is not logical! I guess you could say 0.1 of an apple just as you say one-tenth of an apple, but it seems we don’t. Interesting question.


What about “-1 apple(s)”? “-1” (minus one) is less than “0” (zero). Since we say “zero apples” or “no apples”, and in the case of one less apple than nothing, should it be “-1 apples” or just “-1 apple”?


If the number one is used, whether it is +/-1, the following noun will be singular. So it would be -1 apple. We’re talking grammar, not logic; and yes we say zero apples, probably because zero is thought of as a number that is not one, even though zero is neither singular nor plural logically.


Thank you very much for the answer. In Mathematics (Number Theory), unity means 1 (one), and only the positive one, and there is only one unity. In grammar, it seems like there are two cases for singular nouns. If plural is defined as “any amount other than one”, then, zero is plural, as well as -1.


Unfortunately mathematical theory may have little correlation with grammar or usage. The concept of grammatical number is not a mathematical concept strictly, so the word one is always singular, whatever mathematical theory may hold. English probably treats zero as a plural because the grammar gives only two choices, and the word zero is not the word one: we also say, incidentally, there are no apples on the table (countable) but we say there is no rice on the table (uncountable). At least we don’t have to worry, as the French or the Italians do, whether apple, rice and table are masculine or feminine! And Chinese survives quite well without marking nouns as singular or plural, as I am sure you know.

Anyone want to contribute more ideas? I found it quite intriguing — but then perhaps I am strange…


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I have a problem with tense when I use “if”. What am I doing wrong?

This is actually quite complicated, but I will give you the simplified version that is taught to people learning English as a second language. (Information adapted from A Basic English Grammar with Exercises by John Eastwood and Ronald Mackin, Oxford University Press 1988.)

When you use if you are usually starting a conditional clause — also called an adverbial clause of condition or an IF-clause. You do this to show cause and effect, or what MIGHT happen if something else happens. There are three main kinds of IF-clause:

1. Type 1: IF + simple present tense, then + will, can, may/might.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on December 26, 2006 in English grammar, English language, questions asked, student help, writing


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How can I improve my writing so that it meets the criteria for Bands 5 and 6 in English?

While I can’t guarantee success, I can guarantee that the things on these pages may help you achieve a more impressive and sophisticated style, so long as you practise essay writing enough. Look in Student Help (see links on the right) or in the side bar for a site that may address your writing problems.

Sentence Combining is one technique you can practise as part of developing a more sophisticated style. It is more popular in American schools, but deserves looking at here too.

One characteristic of successful English students is mature style. As you read your assigned texts, as well as whatever leisure material you have time for, occasionally stop to notice how the sentences have been constructed. But do more than notice what’s already out there. You need to practice combining sentence elements to create your own sentences.

Here is a technique that thousands of people have successfully used to upgrade the quality of their prose: sentence combining.

For example:

1. Freud’s ideas were rejected at first.
2. They later came to attract a number of highly original thinkers.
3. These thinkers elaborated his views.
4. They also often disagreed with him.

These kernels can be combined into this sentence:

Though rejected at first, Freud’s ideas later came to attract a number of highly original thinkers who elaborated on his views even if disagreeing with him.

Make one sentence from these kernels:

1. It was 1945.
2. American soldiers came together with Russian soldiers.
3. These soldiers were triumphant.
4. They embraced.
5. They did this on the banks of the Elbe River.
6. They were in the heart of Germany.
7. Germany was vanquished.

More on Sentence Combining.

Study these sentences. Each one shows a different way of combining a number of kernels into one sentence. How many of them do you use? Experiment with the sentences by trying to rewrite each one with the parts moved around. What is the effect?

There is no need to worry too much about the technical language used in the headings; you will find different sites sometimes use different terminology. Just concentrate on the sentences themselves.

Sentence Combining Patterns

Main Clause + Verbal Phrase:
1. He drove away, wishing us success.
2. He drove away, angered at our unwillingness to accept his proposal.
3. I fell to the ground, hitting my head on a concrete slab and losing consciousness.
4. Stumbling awkwardly, Henry came into the room.
5. Polished to perfection, David’s speech was the hit of the convention.

Main Clause + Absolute Phrase:
1. Mrs. Kombs knitted without looking, a fine sweat cooling her brow.
2. The bull looked at him, eyes piercing, horns pointing straight ahead.
3. The day was cold, a frozen sleet covering the ground.
4. She continued her work, her confidence renewed by her supervisor’s well-timed praise.

Main Clause + Adjective Cluster:
1. The old man, bent and withered, was bullied by the big nurse.
2. The horse raced around the corral, wild-eyed and lathered.
3. Just then Clara, red-haired and giggling, flew into the room.
4. Her father, a tall, stiff, strong-willed man, had driven over 1000 miles to see her.

Main Clause + Adjective Clause:
1. He ran head-on into the punch which caused his vision to blur and his ears to ring.
2. Tommy Smith, who was a childhood friend of mine, dove into a vat of beer and died a happy man.
3. Used car salesmen really do care about their customers who don’t have much money.
4. Wendy drove to her friend’s cabin, which was on the shore of Flathead Lake.

Sites you can look at for more ideas and practice:

  • Sentence Varieties and Types is very thorough and quite advanced. For senior students mainly. Then read: Sentence-Combining Skills: very thorough explanations followed by tests.
  • Sentence Clarity and Combining is a Powerpoint presentation from Purdue University. This is great for Year 10 up, perhaps some in earlier years too. WARNING: It is American, so you get “dove” as the past tense of “dive” for example.
  • ESL sentence combining activities: short but useful, except that the example answer given should read:

    When negotiators compromise, they agree that each gets something out of the solution even if nobody gets everything.

  • Sentence Combining Practice: Goldilocks and The Three Bears.
  • The Write Place: This page was written by Sharon Cogdill and Judith Kilborn for the Write Place, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota. You will find many FAQs answered there, not just the present one. If you scroll down you should especially check the sections on how to improve the sound of your sentences, and the “What if my first language is not English?” section. This is what it says on Subject-Verb Agreement for example, and I know that is still a problem for many of you.
  • Expressions you can use to link ideas

    Many student writers do not use them all effectively. This list comes from Five Minute Workshops on Cohesion (University of Missouri-Columbia.) A more detailed list is here.

    Transitional expressions

    To indicate a connection between ideas, writers can use a wide variety of transitional expressions. Some of these words and word groups are listed below. Those used in this paragraph are in boldface:

    The ancient Egyptians were masters of preserving dead bodies by mummifying them. Basically, mummification consisted of removing the internal organs, applying natural preservatives inside and outside, and then wrapping the body in layers of bandages. This process was remarkably effective. Indeed, mummies several thousands of years old have been discovered nearly intact. Their skin, hair, teeth, nails, and facial features are still evident. Their diseases in life, such as smallpox, arthritis, and nutritional deficiencies, are still diagnosable. Even their fatal afflictions are still apparent: a middle-aged Egyptian king died from a blow to the head; a child-king died from polio.

    To show addition –again, also, and, and then, besides, equally important, finally, first, further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, last, likewise, moreover, next, or, still, then, too.

    To compare –also, in comparison, in the same way, likewise, similarly.

    To contrast –although, and yet, at the same time, but, conversely, despite, even so, even though, for all that, however, in contrast, in spite of, nevertheless, nonetheless, notwithstanding, on the contrary, on the other hand, otherwise, regardless, still, though, yet.

    To give examples or intensify –after all, as an illustration, certainly, even, for example, for instance, indeed, in fact, it is true that, namely, of course, specifically, that is, to be sure, to illustrate, to tell the truth, truly.

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    Posted by on December 14, 2006 in esl for students, HSC, questions asked, student help


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    Why do I keep having trouble with subject-verb agreement?

    OK, what are we talking about here?

    First you need to be able to find verbs in a sentence, and there will be one at least 99.9% of the time. Then you ask, WHO? WHAT? + VERB. Congratulations: you have found the SUBJECT!

  • English is stupid.
  • Chinese students work harder. Hey, you must be joking! Well, yes, I am.
  • You see, all those verbs and subjects agree. You wouldn’t say I is joking or Chinese students works hard, would you?

    Want more about subjects and verbs?

    Here is more information on subject-verb agreement.

    You can find many tests and quizzes on this in the links under “Quiz pages”. Here is just one, not all that easy either!

    So why do people still forget this?

    If you have as your first language one that does not mark subjects and verbs by changing something, like Chinese or Indonesian or Vietnamese, then it is easy to forget about it in English. After all, it doesn’t really make much difference to the meaning of what you say; it just sounds, well, silly to an English speaker — like some poor English speaker trying to cope with tone in Mandarin and getting it wrong, except actually less serious than that. (I once introduced myself to a group of Chinese in my very poor Mandarin thus: “Hello. I am Neil Whitfield and I am a dumpling.” when I really meant “teacher.” Tone, you see…)

    It is important not to get so nervous about agreement that you slow your writing down to a crawl. And for heaven’s sake, throw away the white-out! Better to get your ideas down quickly and correct for agreement later, by crossing out if necessary.

    The good news is that it is not such a problem when you write in past tense, as English doesn’t really change much except in present tenses. The bad news is most essays are actually written in present tense, except in History and in some other types of Factual Report writing. That’s because talking about literature, or stating general truths, is done in present tense — just like this sentence, really!

    Be glad if you learn some French or German or Latin, or any other European language. These studies make you much more aware of subject-verb agreement because many other European languages mark agreement much more than English does.

    Even native speakers of English have trouble with subject-verb agreement under certain circumstances; in a long sentence, for example, you may have a number of words in between the subject and the verb: it is easy to lose track and forget to make the subject and verb agree. And there are some words, especially ones that stand for groups (like ‘the team’) where your choice is not easy. Should it be the team is or the team are? Well, that depends on whether you are thinking of “the team” as a single unit (is) or as many individuals (are).

  • I recommend advanced students look at R W Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd edition Oxford University Press 1996) under the word agreement.
  • For an easier explanation of agreement, see this very useful book, which you might consider buying: A Student’s A to Z of Grammar, Usage and Style by Steve Moline (Melbourne, Oxford University Press 2002.) This book is very much up-to-date and tells you a lot about types of writing, problems in grammar and word-choice, media study, computing terms… Excellent from Year 7 all the way to Year 12. There are many other such books available.
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    Posted by on December 2, 2006 in English grammar, English language, questions asked


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