Indirect Questions & Second Conditional
Beep . . . beep . . . beep . . .
(That’s me phoning Susan. I’m too big of a coward to ask her personally, so I’ll propose to her on the phone!)
“Hello,” she says, picking up the phone. Her voice is so sweet . . . It reminds me of a beautiful summer day, with the clouds floating by, the birds chirping in the trees, the stream in the background . . .
“Hello?” she repeats, irritated.
“Oh, sorry. This is John. The guy from Edinburgh. Remember me?”
“Of course I remember you,” she says. She remembers me! Yes, yes, yes!
“Uh . . . listen . . . I’d like to ask you . . . ” Oh my, how do you say that?
“Yes?” she asks.
“I’d like to ask you . . . if the Shard really is the tallest building in London.” No, no, no, that is NOT what I wanted to ask!
“Of course it is,” she replies, surprised.
“Oh, good. But what I really wanted to know is . . . Do you know when it was built?” What am I saying???
“Well . . . ” She takes a break to think, apparently quite astonished—and I don’t blame her! “I have no idea, to be honest, but I can check that for you.”
“No, don’t bother,” I reply. “If I really wanted to know that, I’d check online.”
“So, why are you calling me?” she asks, now totally lost.
“Okay, I’ll just say it. Do you mind telling me what time it is?”
I’d like to ask you if the Shard really is the tallest building in London.
Do you know when it was built?
Do you mind telling me what time it is?
In these questions, John is very shy and wants to be very polite. So, he doesn’t simply ask, “Is the Shard really the tallest building?” “When was it built?” “What time is it?” Instead, he starts with special starters: ‘I’d like to ask you if,” “Do you know,” “Do you mind telling me,” and so on. Be careful! After these beginnings, the sentence looks like a normal sentence, not a question! So, use “the Shard is” and not “is the Shard.” Also, if you want to ask a yes/no question, you have to use “if.”
Sounds familiar? You’re right—this is like in reported speech, but the tenses don’t move back. More examples:
Do you mind me asking if you’re married?
I was wondering how much this costs.
Do you have any idea what time the train leaves?
If I really wanted to know that, I’d check online.
This is an example of the Second Conditional. Grammar books will tell you that it’s about “unreal present and future”—that’s quite complicated! I like to think it’s about NOW. So, if John wanted to know now, he would check now.
In the “if” part, we have a past tense—usually Past Simple, sometimes Past Continuous. In the second part, we have “would” + verb. More examples:
If I were you, I would learn harder.
If I had a million dollars, I would travel around the world.
What would you do if you were rich?
Why did John chicken out? Why didn’t he ask Susan to marry him? You’ll find out tomorrow, so stay tuned! ;)
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