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Direct and Indirect Questions in German- What is the Difference?

Updated: Feb 13

Most students of the German language learn how to phrase questions like the below early on in their course.

"Wie heißt du?" (What's your name?)

"Woher kommst du?" (Where do you come from?)

"Was sind Sie von Beruf"? (What do you do for a living?)

Bearing in mind that the conjugated verb in a German main clause has to be in second position, they just need to remember that the question word comes before the verb, while the subject comes after. Yet, later in their course they encounter examples that appear to contradict this word order.

Ich frage mich, wo der Supermarkt ist.

Kannst du mir bitte erklären, wie ich zum Bahnhof komme.

Könnten Sie mir bitte sagen, wie viel dieses Brot kostet.

So why is the order different here? The answer is that the last three sentences are indirect, whereas the first three examples are direct questions.

A direct question addresses someone beginning with a question word, while an indirect question is embedded in a clause and initiated by certain phrases. Put differently, a direct question is a main clause, while an indirect question is subordinate clause. That explains why the verb is second in a direct, but at the end of the sentence in an indirect question. For more information on word order in German, check out my post on the topic.

So when would you use a direct, when an indirect question? As a general rule, in informal situations you use direct, whereas in more formal settings you use an indirect question. That is because the latter are considered to be more polite. There is no difference in meaning, though.

The most common phrases that initiate indirect questions are

Entschuldigung, Entschuldige (informal imperative)/Entschuldigen Sie (formal imperative) bitte,...

e.g. Entschuldigen Sie bitte, wo finde ich die nächste Bushaltestelle?

Kannst du/Könnten Sie mir bitte sagen,...?

e.g. Könnten Sie mir bitte sagen, wo sich die nächste Bushaltestelle befindet?

Weißt du/Wissen Sie, ...?

e.g. Weißt du, ob das Geschäft morgen geöffnet ist?

Let's finally look at the same sentence as a direct and an indirect question:

Hast du den Unterschied zwischen direkten und indirekten Fragen verstanden?

Ich frage mich, ob du den Unterschied zwischen direkten und indirekten Fragen verstanden hast.

I hope so ;).

Do you want to learn more about German grammar and the German language? Then check out our German language blog. There, you'll find posts explaining relative clauses in German, adjective endings, and interesting articles about online German dictionaries, a review of Duolingo, Memrise and other popular apps. an explanation on the difference between um...zu and damit, as well as als and wenn in German.


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