Chapter 6: Syntax

6.9 Embedded content questions

In looking at simple and complex clauses in English, so far we have looked at:

  • Statements
    • Main clauses
    • Embedded clauses (complementizer = that)
  • Yes-No Questions
    • Main clauses (Subject-Auxiliary Inversion)
    • Embedded clauses (complementizer = if or whether)
  • Content Questions
    • Main clauses (Subject-Auxiliary Inversion and Question Word Fronting)

All that remains to complete this picture is to look at the profile of Content Questions in embedded clauses.

It turns out that any verb that can embed a Yes-No question can also embed a content question. Let’s see some examples:

(1) know
a. I know [CP if squirrels have hidden nuts ]. (embedded Yes-No question)
b. I know [CP what squirrels have hidden ]. (embedded content question)
(2) ask
a. They asked [CP if the movie ends at 8PM ]. (embedded Yes-No question)
b. They asked [CP when the movie ends ]. (embedded content question)
(3) wonder
a. We wondered [CP if someone had baked cookies ]. (embedded Yes-No question)
b. We wondered [CP what someone had baked ]. (embedded content question)

What’s going on in the (b) examples? First of all, we do not see the complementizer if that is found in embedded Yes-No questions—and it’s ungrammatical if we try to include it, no matter what position we try to put it in:

(4) a. *I know [CP what if squirrels have hidden ].
b. *They asked [CP if when the movie ends ].
c. *We wondered [CP what whether someone had baked ].

From the ungrammaticality of all the sentences in (4), we can conclude that it’s impossible to include a complementizer in embedded content questions in English.

What about Subject-Auxiliary Inversion? There’s no inversion in I know what squirrels have hidden.—the auxiliary have stays after the subject squirrels—and if we try to add Subject-Auxiliary Inversion this sentence would become ungrammatical:

(5) *I know [CP what have squirrels hidden ].

So it looks like embedded content questions—at least for most English speakers in Canada—are like main clause content questions in putting the content question word at the front of the clause, but unlike main clause content questions in that they don’t do Subject-Auxiliary Inversion.

There are some varieties of English where sentences like (5), with Subject-Auxiliary Inversion in embedded clauses, are grammatical! This has been described for some varieties spoken in Belfast, Ireland, for example, as described by Henry (1995). Do you find examples like (5) grammatical, or have you ever heard someone use them in English?

Check your understanding

Coming soon!


If you are following the alternative path through this chapter that interleaves core concepts with tree structures, the previous section was 6.8 Main clause content questions and the next section is 6.19 Trees: Movement.


Henry, Alison. 1995. Belfast English and standard English : dialect variation and parameter setting. Oxford University Press.


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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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